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The stars align at Canada’s recent university mission to Brazil

But for Canadian universities to take full advantage of the potential partnerships and collaboration, a few steps still need to be taken.

by Ted Hewitt

Reflecting the growing interest in Brazil – Canada’s third-largest trading partner in the Americas –30 presidents of Canadian universities recently participated in a delegation to that country organized by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. The aim was to promote Canadian excellence in research, highlight Canada’s academic “brand” and encourage the formation of strong linkages between Canadian and Brazilian postsecondary institutions. Underscoring the importance of this venture was the fact that it was led by the Governor General of Canada, and former university president, David Johnston.

Brazil is a logical target for a venture of this scope. With a population of nearly 200 million, it boasts a potentially huge market of Canada-bound undergraduate and graduate students. Further, it possesses what is widely acknowledged to be the most sophisticated innovation system in Latin America, with home-grown technology – much of it developed in public-sector research labs – driving commercial success in a variety of sectors from aerospace to alternative energy, ocean technologies and pharmaceuticals. Its GDP now exceeds that of the United Kingdom.

During their weeklong visit, the leaders of Canada’s universities attended the Conference of the Americas on International Education in Rio de Janeiro, participated in the Canada-Brazil Innovation Forum in São Paulo and visited one of Brazil’s leading technological universities, along with federal research centres, before heading to Brasília for talks with government leaders and representatives of agencies that fund innovation and student mobility.

Still, critics will argue that this visit came too late, following on the heels of similar delegations to Brazil from a number of competitor countries – among them the U.K, Germany and France – as well as high-level delegations from Brazil to key partner countries such as the U.S. But there are sometimes strategic advantages associated with delayed timing. By hanging back, sometimes one can learn from others’ mistakes and arrive with the right message and the right kind of incentives to partnership.

This is eminently true in the Canadian case. On April 27, at the Canada-Brazil Innovation Forum in São Paulo, the co-chairs of the joint committee established by the two countries to operationalize their Science, Technology and Innovation Framework Agreement, ratified in 2010, presented a draft joint action plan. This document lays out a clear pathway for the establishment and growth of collaboration in research and training between Canada and Brazil for years to come. In this regard, Canada is now ahead of the game in its relationship with Brazil – few other countries can boast of a concrete set of objectives driving current and future activity.

In the area of research, for example, the action plan sets in motion the establishment of a research fund managed by International Science and Technology Partnerships Canada. The fund, seeded with an initial contribution of $4.5 million from the federal government to be matched by Brazil, is designed to promote research collaboration between universities and industry in the two countries. The focus initially will be in four areas: ocean technologies, clean technology/ green energy, life sciences, and information and communications technologies. These are all key fields of complementary strength where Canada and Brazil together could make a serious mark internationally.

However, to take full advantage of the partnerships and alliances made as part of the April mission, Canadian universities will need to ensure that their researchers have the tools and networking opportunities required to succeed. In addition, they will need to advocate strongly with our main research funding councils – the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Canada Foundation for Innovation – to develop specific programming targeted at Brazilian and Canadian initiatives.

The action plan also calls for better integration with respect to student mobility between Canada and Brazil. On a planet where both ideas and talent are increasingly mobile, collaboration on this front can help fill each country’s widening skills gap while providing students with the international experience they increasingly require to be successful in their chosen careers.

Already AUCC and its sister organization, the Canadian Bureau of International Education, have begun work with their Canadian university members to attract at least 12,000 of the 100,000 Brazilian students who study abroad through Brazil’s ambitious Science Without Borders program. It is not every day when such large numbers of potential international applicants are prepared to arrive fully funded. The trick will be to communicate effectively with prospective students that Canada’s doors are open and that this country possesses a broad array of top-quality educational programs taught by world-class faculty.

As part of this effort, Canadian universities need to think as well about reciprocity; that is, how to ensure that Canadian students are positioned to participate in study-abroad activities in Brazil. One way to achieve this is through greater emphasis on internships, particularly with companies. Such a strategy could prove highly beneficial both for students seeking applied experience and for Brazilian companies currently experiencing serious shortages of highly skilled labour.

The action plan also calls for active engagement in R&D activities and events that reduce the unfamiliarity that still plagues the Canada-Brazil relationship. To be sure, Canadian and Brazilian researchers have been meeting and collaborating for years. What is required at this point, however, is the kind of consistent presence and networking required to consolidate and build new collaborative R&D ventures in the full range of disciplinary endeavours.

The opportunity is two-fold. On the one hand, institutions in Canada need to work with partners in Brazil to ensure that students, researchers and whole research areas are represented at major conferences through the inclusion of specific Canada-Brazil panels and sessions. Already, discussion is under way to ensure just such a presence at Rio+20, a UN conference on sustainable development to be held this June.

On the other hand, universities need to work with partners to establish and oversee dedicated seminars and events, particularly in areas of complementary strength. Such an event recently occurred as part of the Canada 3.0 digital future conference held in April in Stratford, Ontario. Realizing an objective announced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff last August, the conference included an international workshop to showcase presentations by Brazilian leaders in business, government and academia. This will now be followed by a dedicated Brazil-Canada 3.0 meeting to be held in São Paulo this fall. By bringing together key stakeholders in the digital media sector in both countries, organizers hope to develop the kind of ongoing partnerships that will lead to cutting-edge research and development, and ultimately commercialization.

It is timely that the kind of networking activity that was central to the university presidents’ Brazil foray should coincide directly with a similar federal initiative. Indeed, there seems to be an “aligning of the stars” of university ambition with pragmatic planning, as proposed by the Canada-Brazil joint committee. This will almost certainly yield the kinds of solid bilateral partnerships envisioned by stakeholders all round.

W. E. (Ted) Hewitt, a leading Canadian authority on Brazil, is currently a visiting public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. and professor of sociology at Western University.

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