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Reversing the brain drain


While the federal government has taken steps to address a stagnant science and technology sector in Canada through a $9-billion annual investment (Economic Action Plan 2013, the Harper Government’s eighth budget since 2006), the focus on a trickle-down approach to research and development by shifting resources toward the private sector misunderstands the pipeline by which academic science supplies industry and falls short of nurturing the underlying wellspring of innovation that is necessary to drive economic growth in high technology.

Briefly, the measures proposed in Economic Action Plan 2013:

  • Provide an additional $37 million per year to the federal research granting councils to support collaborations between postsecondary institutions and industry.
  • Extend the eligibility for the granting councils’ undergraduate industrial research awards to bachelor’s students at colleges and polytechnics.
  • Allocate $225 million to support advanced research infrastructure through the Canada Foundation for Innovation.
  • Provide $165 million for genomics research through Genome Canada.
  • Provide $13 million to the Mitacs Globalink program to attract highly promising students from around the world to Canadian universities and allow Canadian students to take advantage of training opportunities abroad.
  • Provide $141 million to ensure a secure supply of medical isotopes and maintain safe and reliable operations at Atomic Energy of Canada Limited’s Chalk River Laboratories.
  • Support teaching and research infrastructure under the Provincial-Territorial Infrastructure Component of the new Building Canada Fund.

Amit Chakma, president of Western University and chair of the U15 group of research-intensive universities (which undertake 80% of all competitive university research in Canada), recently responded that [the federal government has] “prudently chosen to maintain funding to the crucial innovation sectors that will help generate solutions to our pressing social and economic challenges.” There is no question that these investments are welcomed, particularly in the midst of a global economic downturn where many difficult choices had to be made, but are they sufficient?

Discovery-driven research and the commercialization of ideas are not mutually exclusive, and the more appropriate question is what investments should be taken by the federal government to realize the transformative potential of science in the marketplace, and meet its stated goals of:

  1. attracting and retaining talented researchers
  2. supporting excellence in science
  3. bringing discoveries and innovations to the marketplace
  4. building science and technology infrastructure

To remind us of where we stand, I refer you to The State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012, published by the Council of Canadian Academies and recently reviewed by David Kent in a previous post. Some statistics worth highlighting are that with less than 0.5% of the world’s population, Canada produces 4.1% of the world’s research papers and nearly 5% of the world’s most frequently cited papers. Nevertheless, Canada shows a strikingly poor performance in general Science and Technology; and while the United States contributes to 27% of total publications, it claims over 40% of the top 1% of cited papers in the world.

Another statistic that is often cited in political discourse on the state of Canada’s science and technology is that in a survey of over 5,000 leading international scientists, Canada’s scientific research enterprise was ranked fourth highest in the world, after the U.S., U.K. and Germany. While this is true, it was also the only country in the entire OECD that had a net decline in research and development spending from 2005-2010 (-6%) compared to an average 17% increase across other OECD countries, and well below the level of investment in R&D in countries such as Israel, Finland and Sweden, all of which invest in excess of 3.5% of their GDP in support of R&D. (See figures below.)

Billions of Dollars Invested in R&D vs Country
Billions of Dollars Invested in R&D vs Country (click on image to enlarge)
Percentage of GDP Invested in R&D vs Country
Percentage of GDP Invested in R&D vs Country (click on image to enlarge)


While this may be due to “a return to more normal levels as a result of the conclusion of federal stimulus spending” (according to Gary Goodyear, until recently minister of state for science and technology), it does not change the fact that (like everything else) improving Canada’s position in the knowledge market necessitates continued investment. There is no reason why Canada’s science and technology sector should not be ranked first in the world, particularly when considering the underemployment rate of Canadian PhDs. Despite an exceptionally developed postsecondary education system, 6% of PhDs in Canada are underemployed, versus the United States which has nine times the population of Canada and a PhD underemployment rate of only 1.9% (source: Graduating in Canada: Profile, Labour Market Outcomes and Student Debt of the Class of 2005).

Although Canadian R&D spending relative to other countries is more concentrated in the higher education sector, funding policies have prioritized graduate student enrollments at the expense of postgraduate placements, creating an excess of PhDs with limited opportunities for career advancement. The corollary is that a relatively low share of Canadian R&D investment occurs in the business sector, which may be a primary cause of Canada’s lagging productivity growth in relation to many other countries (particularly the U.S.). Shifting funding away from basic research to support private industry, however, is not the answer since most high-technology companies are borne out of academic research laboratories and rely on collaborations with academic laboratories to support the majority of their research and development.

My following posts will address each of the Harper Government’s states goals for science and technology in Canada, and offer insight into how these can be achieved. I very much welcome your input and discussion with this series.

Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is an assistant professor in the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
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  1. Andrew Park / September 18, 2013 at 4:35 pm

    An informative article; I particularly appreciate the facts, figures and information on where the dollars are going.

    As a professor at a smaller university working in a sector (ecology and the environment) that is not particularly blessed by Harper Government largesse, I have some comments and questions:

    Question: Do the U15 universities produce 80% of the research or just suck up 80% of the research funding?

    There is a big difference between these two outcomes. We are no slouches at the smaller institutions, In fact we are training the undergraduate HQP that will become PhDs at the U15. And yes, we train graduate students as well. Yet we increasingly we feel neglected in the funding race and feel that our particular circumstances (higher teaching loads; smaller labs, undergraduate researchers) are not sufficiently taken into account. And I see little in the current Federal research budget for us.

    Second, the overall thrust of Federal fundign has industry and genetics written all over it. Iam not seeing much in the figures for our poor beleaguered Canadian environment. And yet the environment has come under pressure from this government as never before. Unless it is artistically hidden among the other figures, I see no new money for climate, fisheries, water, forests, or endangered species.

    Maybe that’s because they don’t make much money from the generationof new products

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