February 8, 2021
By Jonathan Woods
“Vivek Goel has dedicated his career to the improvement of Canadians’ lives. He’s renowned for his relentless focus on the betterment of our community, and, to that end, has been unfailingly generous with his time, energy, and expertise. He is deserving of the honour of being named a Member of the Order of Canada, and I feel proud and privileged to call him a colleague.” – Ed Clark
“Professor Goel has played an indispensable role in making Vector what it is today. He has shaped the way we train talent and realize the benefits of machine learning for people, including by helping to bring Vector’s health care ambitions to fruition. On behalf of the entire Vector community, I congratulate him on his appointment as Member of the Order of Canada and new role as Chancellor and President of the University of Waterloo.” – Garth Gibson
Considering Vivek Goel’s career and contributions to public health, his appointment as a member of the Order of Canada couldn’t come at a more fitting time than in the midst of a historic pandemic. Goel was recognized for “his contributions as an academic and administrator who is committed to the advancement of public health services, evidence-based health care and research innovation.”
Goel hopes that the appointment brings greater attention to an important public service that, in good times, typically goes unnoticed. He says, “The work of public health is often not that well known, so I feel like my recognition is also helping to recognize that work in general,” adding that “it’s a great honor and a very humbling experience.”
Over his career, Goel has made major contributions to public health administration, post-secondary education, and technology. He was founding president and CEO of Public Health Ontario from 2008 to 2014, at which he oversaw the development of much of Ontario’s capacity to handle health crises, including the current COVID-19 pandemic. He has also held roles as Vice-President and Provost and later Vice-President of Research and Innovation at the University of Toronto, founding member of the Vector Institute’s Board of Directors, founding scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences, and Chief Academic Strategist with global ed-tech platform Coursera. In July 2021, Goel will begin the next chapter in his career: a five-year term as the President and Chancellor of the University of Waterloo.
The impetus behind Goel’s multi-disciplinary contributions starts with the question that has driven him since he first transitioned from family physician to public health professional: “How can we impact as many people as possible in a positive way?”
“One of the things I realized was that as a physician, I would see one patient at a time and maybe twenty people in a day,” Goel says. “But when you deal with things such as infectious diseases, chronic diseases, or childhood obesity, you can have an impact on tens of thousands of people. In public health, your entire community is your patient.”
That notion was particularly important in the wake of the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto, which saw the city become one of the worst-hit regions in the Western Hemisphere and one of the only regions to experience community spread of the disease. After inquiries revealed that insufficient data sharing, lab capacity, and public communications contributed to the severity of the outbreak, Goel left his role as Vice-President and Provost at the University of Toronto to address these problems as founding President and CEO of Public Health Ontario (PHO). At PHO, he oversaw the building and coordination of public lab capacity and the bringing together of scientific and epidemiological expertise into one organization to, among other things, lay the foundation for organized testing and monitoring of disease outbreaks – something that would prove vital only a few years later when COVID-19 began spreading in the province.
At the outset of the 2020 pandemic, Goel brought his approach and expertise honed in public health to his then-role as Vice-President of Research and Innovation at the University of Toronto. There, he co-chaired the COVID-19 Incident Leadership Team, which was established to quickly coordinate the university’s response to the pandemic’s shifting circumstances and to later oversee preparations for the safe return of faculty, staff, and students to campus. He also turned the COVID-19 briefings he regularly provided to university deans and faculty into a podcast, sharing quick updates on new developments and their implications with as broad an audience as possible.
“My goal in every podcast was to get a few quick facts out there to the best of my knowledge,” says Goel. “It’s important that we make sure people can get that from public health voices directly.”
Outside of public health, Goel has been a part of major developments in academic research and technology in Ontario. In his most recent tenure at the University of Toronto, he focused on expanding multi-disciplinary collaboration and relationships with industry. He facilitated major health-related research initiatives, including the establishment of the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research and Medicine by Design, an initiative “to undertake transformative research in regenerative medicine and cell therapy.” On the technology front, Goel became a founding board member of the Vector Institute for artificial intelligence, excited by the opportunity machine learning presented to drive improvements in health care delivery and outcomes. He later supported the development of the Schwartz Reisman Innovation Centre, a 750,000-square-foot complex funded by a $100 million philanthropic investment by Gerald Schwartz and Heather Reisman and set to anchor the university’s AI scientists and biomedical experts.
Today, as incoming Chancellor and President at the University of Waterloo, Goel considers how to apply his guiding principle from public health – How can we impact as many people as possible in a positive way? – in the context of a “post-pandemic university.”
Goel describes the post-pandemic university as one that puts the major issues laid bare by the pandemic firmly on its agenda. He explains, “The pandemic is one of these pivotal historical moments, and we are undergoing some pretty dramatic shifts in society. The use of technology for virtual education, collaborative research, and solving the world’s big problems has been accelerated in the last year.” He says that the pandemic has also exacerbated or brought focus to certain challenges, including socioeconomic disparities and issues related to race, globalization, and political polarization. These technological developments and societal shifts, he says, have raised several new and important questions about what the role of the university is, what kind of research it should be doing, and what perspectives it should provide on these issues.
“When I talk with students, they know that that’s the world they’re going to have to live with, and they want to work on these issues,” Goel says. “As the University of Waterloo president, I have the opportunity to work with colleagues across the country and around the world, and we can think about how we educate the next generation in a meaningful way about these issues, and try to have a generational shift.”
The Order of Canada’s motto is Desiderantes meliorem patriam – “They desire a better country” – and its appointees are recognized as the embodiment of that sentiment. The Vector Institute salutes Goel’s contributions and well-deserved recognition for the work he’s done to bring that desire to fruition and his effort to empower new generations to pursue their ambition to do the same.
Footnotes: Website of The Governor General of Canada. Governor General Announces 61 New Appointments to the Order of Canada. December 30, 2020. https://www.gg.ca/en/activities/2020/governor-general-announces-61-new-appointments-order-canada  Medicine by Design website. https://mbd.utoronto.ca/about/who-we-are/