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Margin Notes

The state of science and innovation in Canada

We’re a “mid-level” performer says the Science, Technology and Innovation Council, and that’s not good enough.

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | MAY 05 2009

The Science, Technology and Innovation Council unveiled its first public report today on the state of Canada’s science, technology and innovation system. The council didn’t give a grade, but judging from their comments I’d say we got a C (which I define as “average, meets minimum expectations”).

The actual words they used to describe Canada at a press conference in Ottawa were a “mid-level performer” (Heather Munroe-Blum, principal of McGill University) and “fair to middling” (Peter MacKinnon, president of the University of Saskatchewan).

Also speaking at the event were Howard Alper, chair of the council and former vice-president, research, at University of Ottawa; and Guy Rouleau, a genetics researcher and professor of medicine at Université de Montreal.

(A summary of the report can be found here and the full report, State of the Nation 2008, can be downloaded here.)

The council, which was created in October 2007 to provide advice to the federal government through the minister of industry, says in the report that Canada has a number of strengths but also vulnerabilities.

Howard Alper sums it up this way: “Our Report concludes that although Canada is improving, other countries are improving faster. Canada remains a solid mid-level performer, but given the importance of innovation to our future, this is not good enough. We need to set our ambitions higher in keeping with what Canadians are capable of achieving.”

Among the report’s specific conclusions are:

  • Canadian research is of high quality and Canada’s university R&D ranks near the top, but discoveries are not being sufficiently transformed into products and services.
  • Canada has low business R&D investment levels, a persistent issue for decades; discoveries are not being sufficiently transformed into products and services.
  • There is a low level of collaboration in Canada among companies and between companies and researchers.
  • Young Canadians excel in science, math and reading scores, but this is not translating into enough university grads in these areas.

These conclusions are backed up by reams of data and comparisons with other OECD countries in numerous areas. Anybody involved or interested in science policy will want to check out the 52-page report carefully – not exactly bedtime reading, but chock-a-block with interesting statistics and information.

One reporter at the press conference, referring to the recent critiques of science funding in Canada, asked the panel if they thought the Harper government “gets it” in terms of the importance of research funding, particularly compared to U.S. President Barack Obama.

But none of the panellists would bite.

“The question here is not to politicize investments in science,” said Dr. Munroe-Blum. “Canada cannot afford a politicization of its science, technology and innovation framework.”

The report made a number of recommendations to improve Canada’s position, including “focus[ing] science, technology and innovation in areas where Canada can leverage its strengths to achieve global leadership.” Last October, the council identified four strategic areas of research where it felt Canada has – or could achieve – a competitive advantage (see the priorities and subpriorities here).

Asked if this means the council is suggesting that the federal granting councils focus their funding in these areas, Dr. Alper replied that “while a substantial minority of funds should be for priority areas, a significant majority should be allocated to unfettered research.”

Pressed to give a percentage breakdown for these two areas, he cited Australia and Japan, where roughly 70 percent of funds go to “fundamental research based on excellence” and 30 percent on targeted research priorities, adding “this would be appropriate for Canada.”

A weakness of the report is that its recommendations are, in actuality, fairly vague. The council set no goals, targets or indicators that can be used to measure success. The council members countered that this report is meant to set a “baseline” and that the council will produce follow-up reports every two years to document whether progress is being made.

I’ll keep you posted on any reactions to the report from the research community, government or elsewhere. In the meantime, what’s your reaction?

ABOUT LÉO CHARBONNEAU
Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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