Vivek Goel re-appointed U of T's vice-president of research and innovation, takes on expanded role

Photo of Vivek Goel
“The really big challenges that we face as a society – in climate change, international migration, you name it – require people working across disciplines,” Goel says of U of T's growing number of interdisciplinary projects (photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

The University of Toronto ranks among the world’s top universities when it comes to research output and impact – and, increasingly, it’s seeking to harness the sheer size and scope of its research footprint to solve some of the world’s toughest problems.

Vivek Goel, who has overseen U of T’s vast research apparatus since 2015 as vice-president of research and innovation, says the growing number of interdisciplinary research initiatives on campus, which bring together faculty, students and other partners across dozens of different fields, is rapidly emerging as one of the university’s key strengths.

Examples include the recently announced Schwartz Reisman Centre for Technology and Society, the School of Cities and Medicine by Design, a regenerative medicine and cell therapy program supported by a $114-million Canada First Research Excellence Fund award.

“The really big challenges that we face as a society – in climate change, international migration, you name it – require people working across disciplines,” Goel says.

To reflect the shift toward interdisciplinary work, Goel’s re-appointment came with an expanded portfolio and title: vice-president of research, innovation, and strategic initiatives.

Goel, who is also a professor in the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, has a medical degree from McGill University and obtained a Master of Science in Community Health from U of T and a Master of Science in Biostatistics from Harvard University School of Public Health. He first joined U of T in 1991 as an assistant professor in the department of preventative medicine and biostatistics. He stepped into progressively more senior roles and served as U of T’s vice-president and provost from 2004 until 2008. He then became the founding president and CEO of Public Health Ontario, which was set up in response to the SARS crisis, before moving to Coursera in California as chief academic strategist.  He returned to U of T in his current role in 2015.

Goel recently spoke to U of T News about the some of the highlights of his first term as vice-president of research and innovation, U of T's unique research strengths and his priorities in the years ahead.

What were some of the highlights of your first term? 

I'll start by mentioning some of the really interesting projects that we worked on such as Medicine by Design and the Canada First Research Excellence Fund. That's the largest grant in the university's history. It's one of the highlights for not only seeing the university get it, but also being able to work with the team on implementing it. Another highlight is the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research. That was multi-institutional with SickKids and the University Health Network, focusing on heart failure. It was a big achievement getting that facility and program of research off the ground. More recently there was the creation of the Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society and the announcement of the new innovation centre.

Looking back over the past five years, we've had three of these $100-million-dollar-plus types of initiatives. They're really where the exciting scholarship is at, and it’s where faculty and students want to be working. 

That's why creating this new strategic initiatives portfolio is so important. It's an opportunity for the university to work across faculties and disciplines, and across the campuses and with the hospitals, on some of these big problems. 

How is U of T different from other universities when it comes to supporting interdisciplinary collaboration? 

First of all, when you look at the rankings of global universities by subject area, we're really among a handful of universities that are among the top 25 or top 50 in so many different subjects. So, while we often express a concern about our size, this is actually one of the strengths of the university. Because we are a large institution and we have strengths in so many disciplines, when you want to bring together a community around a specific topic like, say, cities, it's not hard to find 200 or 300 faculty working on that topic. And you can find them in a broad range of disciplines, from political science through to engineering. When you look at it, there's only a few universities globally that are like us in having that strength across so many subjects.

The second thing is, when you look at other similarly situated universities, there's an even smaller number that are public universities. As a public university, we have a mandate to be engaged with our community. We're very accessible in terms of the number of students we admit as well as the demographic profile of our students. If you think of some of the other institutions, particularly private U.S. universities, they're very selective in their admissions. And so they're usually not as directly engaged with their communities.

To me, what makes U of T unique is these broad interdisciplinary strengths that we can build on, the connection with our communities locally, nationally and globally, and the fact that we're open and accessible, which means that we get students from around the world who want to work on these really big problems.

What are the challenges when it comes to doing interdisciplinary research? 

We already have many areas of the university that are interdisciplinary by nature. Think of the Rotman School of Management or the Dalla Lana School of Public Health – they are very interdisciplinary. But what happens is we wind up with structural barriers to collaborating across divisional boundaries. Helping people bridge disciplines and divisional boundaries is really important.

Second, it can be challenging simply to do the work because people use different concepts and terminology. If you have a scientist working with a philosopher, they can have different definitions of a fundamental term. At the Schwartz Reisman symposium a few weeks ago, which focused on fairness and equity, we had different scholars from different disciplines presenting what those terms mean in their disciplines. You can bring people together and they start to say, “We're all working on ‘equity,’” and it's only six months later that they realize they actually had a different definition of what equity means.

There are other challenges. If you're a graduate student who wants to work across disciplines, you've got to meet the requirements for a particular discipline and it can be difficult to also meet the requirements for a second or third discipline. The final difficulty is our funding is often structured. You apply to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) for engineering funding and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) for social sciences and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) for health. Trying to do research that spans boundaries means that, sometimes, it can be difficult to find the necessary funding. I am excited that the New Frontiers in Research Fund is being launched which will support exactly this type of boundary-spanning research. 

What is something you learned in your first term about U of T's research apparatus that you didn't know going into the job? 

We have a huge set of responsibilities around research integrity and accountability. We have to do research accounting to make sure public funds are spent in an appropriate way. And we get audited on all these things that we do. I knew that we did these things, but I didn't realize how much work it was, and how much work our staff in various research offices did alongside faculty and business officers and others in the academic divisions to ensure that our research is done in compliance with all the requirements that are out there. 

That's something a lot of people probably don't realize: How much goes on in the background to make a research institution of this scale function. 

U of T created 59 new research-based companies in the last three years – more than any other institution in North America. What contributes to the climate of innovation and entrepreneurship here? 

One, simply, is our size. We have a lot of activity going on. In recent years, because those numbers have been accelerating, I think our faculty and our students have become much more engaged with the processes required to follow the commercialization pathway –  invention disclosures, creating startups, licensing to other companies.

We have enhanced the range of programs. Going back to the highlights reel for the last few years, another really important area has been the growth of U of T Entrepreneurship that has been taking the great work that was happening across all three campuses and highlighting and supporting it. Now we have events like Entrepreneurship Week and, recently, we had the Sustainability Innovation Prize competition.

These are relatively new things that have helped elevate the activity and profile of innovation and entrepreneurship. I think it becomes a self-perpetuating type of process as more and more people get excited about the opportunities. I think we have been very fortunate that there's been interest from our faculty and students in doing this, and that we have been able to support them with the resources we've created. 

You recently wrote an op-ed for the Globe and Mail about how technology is creating new jobs and changing the face of work. How does the university prepare its students for the jobs of the future? 

One thing is understanding we don't have a clue what the jobs of the future will be. Nobody can really predict how technologies are going to evolve. In terms of preparing our graduates, we really have to prepare them for a world that is changing. It can sound trite, but learning how to learn is probably the most important thing we can prepare people for so that, regardless of what comes at them, they've learned how to adapt.

The Myhal Centre for Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship, for example, is so important because it was created to enable this kind of interdisciplinary engagement and collaboration among teams of students. 

Although we can't predict what the jobs of the future will be, I think with more and more automation and robotics, jobs for humans will involve more critical thinking and reasoning skills. Where I think this ties into our mandate in research is, as a research-intensive university, what's happening in our research environments – whether it's in labs or field studies or people working in the library –  they're on the cutting edge of where things are going. 

From my perspective, it's not just about giving students research exposure, it's also the research methods and approaches to research that will prepare them with the kinds of skills that they need to be adaptable to a changing work environment, regardless of whether or not they are working in a research setting. 

The principles of equity, diversity and inclusion are important to U of T and they seem to be baked into the mission of the research and innovation office. Can you tell me about that? 

The university has a statement on excellence and equity. The underlying principle is you can't do the very best work possible – whether it's in teaching or in research – if you don't start with the entire talent pool of the world. If you're not being equitable and you're leaving certain groups out, you're missing out on some of the very top talent. Being equitable and inclusive is about ensuring that we meet our ambition to be excellent. Second, as many of the big questions require interdisciplinary work, addressing those questions also requires a diversity of thought. 

Go back to the Schwartz Reisman symposium a couple of weeks ago. It looked at issues like data and data access, as well as the development of algorithms and ensuring there's no bias. You need people looking at these issues from different experiences and backgrounds. Having a diverse set of scholars and students working on a particular topic helps ensure that you don't miss out on the solutions to critical questions. 

What are your priorities for your second term? 

Our priorities are to continue to support the institution and its ambition of being among the leading research institutions in the world. A couple of the really big priorities are strategic initiatives –  we're going to enhance the supports that we have across the institution to drive more of these large-scale cross-disciplinary initiatives.

The second thing for which we have recently received funding to create is a new Centre for Research Innovation and Support. That's going to be launched in the fall. It’s going to co-ordinate and better support faculty and staff engaged in research and keep them up to date on the latest tools and approaches – for example, data science methods being used by researchers right across the university, not just in math and the computational sciences. How do we support people in different disciplines using these sorts of tools? 

We also have a lot of activity in the data science space, including the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence. We're looking at how to better support faculty in collaborating and working with all these great resources that we have. We're looking to launch a new data science hub for these initiatives as well. 

Your background is in medicine. What inspired you to pursue medicine as a career? 

I went into medicine because I was interested – like many people are – in helping people who have disease get better. It's probably more interesting to talk about why I got out of clinical practice. 

And why was that? 

One of the things I realized as I went through my training and worked as a primary care physician was that you're often getting to people at a very late stage. That's what led me to go into public health, which is about preventing disease and working with entire populations. To me, it's like teaching. You work with large numbers of students to make sure they're successful. In public health, you work with the entire population to keep them from getting disease to begin with, rather than trying to treat them after the fact. 

You were the founding president and CEO of Public Health Ontario, which was set up in response to the SARS crisis. Did you learn any lessons there that are applicable here? 

Outside of Asia, Ontario had the worst SARS outbreak globally. There were a number of reasons that happened. One reason was because the province didn't have a lot of scientific and technical capacity for surveillance, epidemiology and public health lab services, and it had been cut by the government at the time. People didn't see prevention as something worth investing in, particularly research around prevention. 

In building Public Health Ontario, we worked to create an academic organization – one that had a research focus as well as delivering public health services. It's similar to what we try to balance at the university between excellence in teaching and excellence in research, and looking for synergies between the two. 

The people of Ontario, and the people of Canada, deserve having these world-class research institutions, whether they're research hospitals or agencies like Public Health Ontario or the University of Toronto. That ensures that the services we get are also world class.