By Christine Lacaze
Martha Crago is McGill University’s new Vice President of Research and Innovation, a five-year mandate that began on July 1st, 2017.
Martha Crago has graduated from McGill three times. She obtained a PhD and a master’s from the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders as well as a Bachelor’s in Anthropology and Sociology. Crago was awarded Montreal’s “Women of Distinction” award in 2000, made a “Member of the Order of Academic Palms” by the French government in 2009 and given the “Woman of Excellence” Award from Nova Scotia in 2015. McGill University has also given her a prize for the scope of her research. It is with great honour that we sat down with her to discuss her life and vision.
Tell us about the path that led you here. What is it about research and innovation that fascinates you?
Everything began during the course of my research with indigenous communities. At the time, I did what some might call “social innovation” - my work involved the indigenous communities quite a bit, as well as the school boards and health services in the North of Quebec. When The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was ratified, Inuits wrested control of their own government, schools and hospitals. We helped to institute changes to those services - that’s where the innovation was, in the sense that we invented new service models thanks to research that was led primarily through a partnership with the public sector. I always loved research, but it was essential for me that it be put to the service of the communities with which I was working. That’s always been my way of working, and I believe it to be what gave me a true taste for teamwork.
Afterward, I became Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies at Mcgill. Over the course of my tenure, I greatly respected and admired graduate studies that put students into contact with their industry, like the MITACS or CRSNG program. They allowed their students to work in laboratories other than those at the University, giving them contact with the outside.
I became the International Vice-President of the University of Montreal, later, and my end-goal was to open up the University’s doors, whether that be to private, international or public communities.
I was named Director of Research at Dalhousie University and left Montreal. We put a number of programs into motion that involved international partners and private companies. When I took the job at McGill, I told myself that it would be great for me to return to Montreal and McGill, where it all started for me. McGill’s academic community was ready to evolve in a way that was interesting to me, because it had added the words “Research and Innovation” to “Vice Principal.”
What are the priorities and changes that you would like to bring to McGill over your five-year tenure as Vice Principal of Research and Innovation
Setting into motion innovative projects for the University, for one, but also for society. As for innovation, I’d like to focus on a definition I heard of the word five or six years ago, and that was: “A new product, a new process or a new service.” That includes a lot of things. It can be a new service for refugees, a new way of teaching in schools, a new product to put on the market, etc.
But the partnership aspect - that aspect of working together is also vital, because it will lead us to new solutions. Building partnerships with public, private and international people and organizations is our goal. The ground is very fertile right now - the question is how to mobilize that within the university. That’s what I’m working on right now.
How do you think Montreal is doing on the research and innovation front, with respect to other major cities in Canada and the United States
Montreal today has nothing to do with what it was ten years ago. It’s brimming with opportunity! There are a lot of NGOs, coworking spaces, and entrepreneurial projects, and the city offers a ton of possibilities for work outside of the university, etc. Our city is vibrant - we were confronted with that again when Facebook announced it was inaugurating its new AI research lab in Montreal. To me, that demonstrates Montreal generates interest in certain fields and that it the city is singularly appealing.
What do you think is the greatest challenge facing Montreal in order to remain creative and innovative, and why?
For me, it’s Montreal’s appeal - the ability to attract people here and retain them. We must also find solutions within our immigration departments to allow and help international students build businesses in Canada, for instance, or go to the United States to learn from big American businesses. We face this issue all the time with our PhD students, so we have to ask: have we tried everything that we can for Canada to be an innovative country, and for our cities to be innovative, too?
Another thing I’ll say about Montreal is that it’s a very complex city. As I was saying earlier, Montreal is vibrant, and many people are involved in making it run and thrive. Does everyone know exactly what the other is doing, and why? Do people work in function of their needs?
You told me that the Vice Principal (Research and Innovation) position is new. What motivated McGill to create such a position?
That’s a very interesting question, but I wasn’t here when that decision was made. I think that many factors were involved
Firstly, the current Rector is the former President of the Natural Sciences and Research Engineering Council of Canada. She instituted a number of programs and partnerships between the private sector and universities.
Secondly, I think everyone has to realise that in Canada, universities are public institutions. We’re financed by the public sector - we’re not Princeton, or Harvard, or Yale. We are responsible for helping our regions, provinces and country develop economically. Universities are the ones who supply our governments with the scientific data on which their policies are based. I think we have an obligation to communicate what we do with the public at large, to share our findings with politicians and to create bonds with private sector industries to make them grow and and allow them to stimulate job creation. I think McGill realises that it has the duty to create bonds with the local community.
What does Montreal’s Quartier de l’innovation look like in our wildest dreams?
I would very much like for it to be an area that continues to have strong relationships with universities and creates partnerships between universities, the private sector and various communities within the city.
I visited the University of Waterloo a long time ago. They had created a small community that had moved into an old leather factory. There were offices for start-ups, students from neighbouring universities, and big companies. It was kind of their own quartier de l’innovation. The people in this building had discussions, ordered pizza together - they exchanged a lot. When I asked them why their offices weren’t located on the University campus, the students told me that they needed to be on the outside. I think the Quartier de l’innovation is just that - a place outside of our “University Towers” where we can go to build bridges, open doors and windows, and connect.