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Canada competes well in research globally

Half of Canada’s six strongest fields are in humanities and social sciences, says new report by Council of Canadian Academies.

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | SEP 27 2012

Canada is well-positioned internationally in both the output and impact of its science and technology but performs particularly well in six fields, says a new report by the Council of Canadian Academies. “These six fields stood out,” said Eliot Phillipson, former president of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, who chaired the 18-member expert panel that prepared the report.

The six fields, in alphabetical order, are: clinical medicine, historical studies, information and communication technologies (ICT), physics and astronomy, psychology and cognitive science, and visual and performing arts.

The report, The State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012, was prepared at the request of the Government of Canada through the Ministry of Industry. Released on Sept. 27, it is a follow-up to the council’s inaugural report on the state of science and technology in Canada published in 2006. The new report “builds upon, updates and expands on the previous report,” said the council.

In general, Canada “is competing extremely well in the global context,” said Dr. Phillipson, an emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Toronto. “It is something that all Canadians can take considerable pride in, and in a broad sense they can be reassured that Canada’s investments in its universities and in its science-support programs are producing high-quality results.”

If there was an “element of surprise” to this year’s findings, said Dr. Phillipson, it was that three of the six top fields the panel identified reside partly or entirely within the humanities and social sciences. “Science is used here in a very broad sense, meaning scholarly inquiry and research,” he explained. “Among the panel there was an immediate acceptance of the notion” that the humanities and social sciences should be included in the review.

The 2006 report did not list specific fields, but instead identified four broad areas of S&T strength. Nevertheless, none of those four areas identified in 2006 – natural resources, health and related sciences, ICT and environmental science – were in the humanities and social sciences.

As in the previous report, the 2012 version used a variety of qualitative and quantitative measures to assess S&T strength. The report noted that, with less than 0.5 percent of the world’s population, Canada produces 4.1 percent of the world’s scientific papers. And its output is growing: between 2005 and 2010, the country produced 59 percent more papers than in the 1999 to 2004 period.

Equally impressive, according to the report, has been the overall impact of Canadian S&T as measured by average relative citations, or ARC, a bibliometric measure of how frequently papers are cited. By that score, Canada ranked sixth in the world.

In addition to the six fields of strength named by the panel, nine sub-fields in which Canada leads as measured by the ARC score were also identified: anatomy and morphology, astronomy and astrophysics, business and management, classics, criminology, dermatology and venereal diseases, general and internal medicine, nuclear and particle physics, and zoology.

On the qualitative side, the panel assessed the global reputation of Canadian S&T by surveying the authors of the top one percent of the most highly cited research papers in their fields, to which more than 5,000 responded. These international researchers ranked Canada among the five leading countries in five of the six fields named in the report (the exception being physics and astronomy). “We think this is a very important opinion because it’s coming from the world’s leading researchers,” said Dr. Phillipson.

Comparing the new report with the earlier one, two of the four areas identified as strengths in 2006 – ICT and health and related life sciences – have improved by most measures. The other two areas – natural resources and environment – “either remained static or in most cases declined” relative to other countries, said Dr. Phillipson. Areas of emerging research strength identified in the report included wireless technologies and networking, information processing and computation, nanotechnologies, and digital media technologies.

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