I watched our new prime minister take to the international stage in late November to renew Canada’s diplomatic relations and our place in the world, it reminded me of what science and scholarship contribute to global knowledge and understanding. People have often asked me why academics travel to other countries. I have found it easy to answer: we do so in the interest of sharing ideas, resources and data, and finding our way forward to solve future global challenges.
Canada has recently seen the advent of new institutional modes of sharing through binational and multinational graduate-student training programs. Examples include Unité Mixte Internationale, in which the French government pays researchers to spend time doing arctic research at Université Laval, and a number of close partnerships Canadian universities have developed with German research institutes such as the Max Planck, Fraunhofer and Helmholtz institutes. The Canada Institute for Advanced Research also links Canadian researchers to international researchers to explore globally exciting questions.
In the context of such promising models of sharing knowledge and breaking down barriers, it is interesting to consider the meaning of international rankings in relation to world science.
A thorough and thought-provoking approach to this issue appears in a recent book by Robert Lacroix and Louis Maheu, published in English as Leading Research Universities in a Competitive World (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015). Interestingly, while the title refers to a competitive world, the ranking criteria for the Times Higher Education World University Rankings include the number of international collaborations a university has as reflected in publications, and its percentage of international professors and students.
These are some of the components that presumably make a university excellent, because they demonstrate that it has the capacity to attract people from abroad and that its researchers engage with other researchers internationally to create global knowledge. However, overall, one wonders if rankings have not positioned universities in a competition, one against the other, more than they have encouraged the sharing of science and understanding.
The recent UNESCO Science Report: Towards 2030 has noted a number of trends in global science that are interesting to consider. These include a radical shift from basic to applied science worldwide and a relative decrease in public spending on research while private spending on research and development is increasing. This is opposite to the situation in Canada, where business expenditures on R&D, or BERD, are decreasing.
From 2006 to 2013, Canada has dropped the most on this metric – from 18th to 26th place of 41 OECD countries, according to the recent State of the Nation 2014 report by Canada’s Science, Technology and Innovation Council. Returning to the UNESCO report, its authors also document a shift in the percentages of the world’s total spending on R&D across various countries. China now accounts for 20 percent of the world’s total research funding, closing in on the 28 percent invested by the United States, while Japan, a much smaller country, invests a surprisingly large 9.6 percent of the world’s research funding. Overall, the authors note that global gross expenditures on R&D, or GERD – the total amount of funds spent on all R&D activities across all sectors public and private – have increased by more than 30 percent in the last five years. Canada, to the contrary, has invested less in R&D overall. According to the State of the Nation 2014 report, our GERD ranking fell from 16th to 24th among the 41 OECD countries.
The UNESCO report shows that, combined, the European Union, China, the U.S., Japan and Russia have 72 percent of the world’s researchers. The EU leads the world in scientifi c publications, at 34 percent, with the U.S. in second at 24 percent, followed by China, which now produces 20 percent – a dramatic rise from the 10 percent it produced 10 years ago.
Given the relatively small size of both Canada’s research community and its much smaller research expenditures, our country’s researchers probably profit more from the research investments of certain other countries than their researchers do from ours. Since the overall expense of research is very large – nearly US$1.5 trillion, according to the UNESCO report – it is important for researchers around the world to collaborate and to share expensive research infrastructure wherever possible. Finally, and sadly, women still comprise a minority of the world’s researchers, a depressing 24 percent of the total.
It does seem that since we, as university researchers, are all here together, women and men alike, from all the diverse countries of this planet and since we all share the same goal of trying to understand, improve and sustain the world in which we live, that working on global science on a world stage should be a top priority for us all and for Canada as a nation. It will not only bring great discoveries but also increase mutual respect and cooperation at a time in history when these fundamental characteristics of good diplomacy are needed.