Let’s do more to leverage Canada’s diversity for a stronger digital research infrastructure field

posted on October 27, 2021

By Nizar Ladak | Policy Options | October 14, 2021

As the global innovation race speeds up, diverse and inclusive recruitment to the industry will help keep our technology exports competitive.

It’s time we proactively build our digital research infrastructure strategy on the bedrock of equity, diversity and inclusion and make Canada a leader in this space. There have been arguments for increased representation through the lens of social responsibility – a laudable position. However, few have argued the economic benefits of a diverse workplace. This is particularly true in the digital research infrastructure (DRI) field, where Canada already benefits directly from a diverse workforce. But we could be tapping into our potential so much more.

In 2018, the government of Canada took a positive step toward co-ordinating our national computing power and connectivity with the best possible software and storage services available for data through a digital research infrastructure strategy. Under this strategy, a new contribution program was established under which the Digital Research Alliance of Canada (formerly the New Digital Research Infrastructure Organization) was awarded up to $375 million to co-ordinate and lead the national DRI strategy. As a federal not-for-profit organization, the Digital Research Alliance of Canada seeks to build and sustain a strong and vibrant DRI ecosystem in Canada.

DRI is the collection of tools and services that allow researchers to turn big data into scientific breakthroughs. Data is not simply the new oil in our economy, but also an essential tool for scientific progress. Well-constructed, clearly defined and large volumes of exchangeable and useful data underpins quality research and policy in every discipline. As the global innovation race speeds up, only the countries that have world-class DRI in place will be able to stay competitive.

As the inaugural chief executive officer of the Digital Research Alliance of Canada, it is clear to me that one of our emergent priorities is to find ways to develop and retain Canada’s highly qualified personnel in the DRI field, including data curators, analysts, archivists, software developers and system administrators, who support and manage the underlying hardware. Cybersecurity expertise ensures that the knowledge created is protected. Positioning equity, diversity and inclusion at the forefront in hiring and training will be central to ensuring we have a robust, innovative, creative and competitive workforce.

Canada’s strengths in diversity and multiculturalism already provide a definite advantage to our technology exports, such as software and applications. Our products are highly attractive to other countries because adoption is considered easier for users than products from other regions, especially for markets in Europe, Asia and South America. Why?

A Canadian technology product has a good chance of being created by a project team comprised of individuals from different countries, which is a direct result of Canada’s immigration-friendly policies and longstanding commitment to international education. In this context, a project team’s lived experiences influence how any Canadian technology product is designed. Adoption of that product will most likely be stronger in foreign markets where the end user also has shared lived experiences with those on the product development team.

In other words, Canada’s competitive advantage for technology exports is actually embedded in our very fabric and identity as Canadians.

So why aren’t we shaping our policies around our biggest natural asset – our diverse workforce?

Our future prosperity is in our diversity 

What can governments and employers do to move equity, diversity and inclusion forward? We are at a historic moment of opportunity – and we need to seize it.

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