November 10, 2006

Science funding in Canada

Earlier this week, Ian Urquhart of The Toronto Star had a very illuminating article, T.O.'s research crossroads, commenting on the future of scientific research funding here in Toronto and in Canada as a whole:

"For all its current research and industrial strengths, it is by no means certain that the Toronto region can continue to prosper," says the report by a team of researchers at the University of Toronto.

"The remarkable growth in global competition in advanced technology industries, together with the major investments being made by governments around the world to strategically support research and innovation, present a major challenge to the Toronto region."


Meanwhile, says the report, under the Conservative government in Ottawa, key research agencies "have either reached the end of their terms or have received no word as to their future funding."

In this respect, the report names the Canada Foundation for Innovation (which funds research infrastructure), Genome Canada (which supports genetic research), CANARIE (a national high-bandwidth network for research), and the Canada Research Chairs program (under which research talent is recruited to Canada).

"Undoubtedly, Canada is at a crossroads," says Ross McGregor, president of the Toronto Region Research Alliance, in a preface to the report. "Will our national government choose to make the dramatic investments which will move us into the top tier of innovation-intensive countries in the world? Or will we be satisfied with the status quo, which will effectively mean falling behind in the international R&D arena?"
The Globe and Mail's James Rusk weighs in as well:
Toronto ranked second only to the Boston area when measured by the number of science- and engineering-related papers published.

But it fell to fifth place in terms of patent application in the United States, which the researchers took as the measure of the Toronto region's performance in commercializing research.

The researchers also found that Canada does not support research and development as strongly as other countries in the study, such as Sweden, the United States and Singapore.

They also found that, while the Toronto region is on the cusp of becoming "one of the world's true megacentres of research and advanced technologies," it gets only 21 per cent of federal funding for research and development -- even though 35 per cent of all R&D in Canada is done in the area.
The report, prepared by the Toronto Region Research Alliance, mentioned in the article is here.

I've also had hanging around an article by David Crane in The Star, from October 22nd, Canada must find, exploit new talents which is more directly about the patents issue.
One measure of our ability to turn the results of our efforts in research and development into potentially commercial possibilities is the rate at which we generate new patents. Patents are a legal recognition that an idea is unique and deserves protection, allowing the inventors either to proceed to commercialize the invention themselves or to license it to others. It is one way, though not the only way, of measuring the results of our investments in research and development.

This past week the World Intellectual Property Office, known as WIPO, published its annual report, which showed that we may be getting a poor return for our research investments and that these numbers should be a cause for concern in Canada.


We live in what is known as a knowledge economy, where ideas are the new currency — represented by talented people and the discoveries they make. In Canada, companies such as Research in Motion and CAE Inc., , the maker of aircraft flight simiulators, are examples where the ideas and knowledge, not the factory buildings, are the real assets of the enterprise. Indeed, in many businesses today, the real value is not in physical assets but in what we call intangibles such as ideas, skills and reputation. Microsoft is an example. This is the way of the future.

The future will also be a world of much greater competition, much faster development of new ideas, and where brainpower and capacity for risk will be the hallmarks of success. Today's marvel will quickly become tomorrow's commodity — the cellphone is a prime example and the laptop computer another. This is why The Economist recently had a whole section on the global search for talent. The level of risk aversion in our investing community and among public policy makers does not augur well for Canada's future.

The WIPO report is here.

My point here, and I do have one, is that as a society we have to come to grips with how we value science and technology. Do we want to continue to be hewers of wood and drawers of water or do we want to step up and take our place in a new world? The wood and water (and fish and oil) tend not to provide large numbers of high-paying jobs, especially when the Canadian operations are merely branch plants of foreign-owned multinationals. If we don't put our brains to work, we'll fall behind those that do. There are positive signs, as mentioned in the articles above, including a growing acceptance that the environment is an important issue and that science has provided a very good insight into what is happening in our ecosystem and that many of the things we need to do going forward will grow out of science and engineering as well as politics and economics. It would be nice if scientists and engineers had as much clout and respect and were valued as much as politicians, economists, journalists, lawyers and all the rest. When was the last time you saw a tv drama about scientists or engineers?

In all comes down to the idea that we must challenge our governments to take scientific and technical issues seriously and to value the scientists and engineers that do the research in a way that has never really happened here. An awful lot depends on it.


rakerman said...

I think there's a deep structural challenge with the government. We have a cabinet excellently designed to meet the needs of 1850s Canada - a ministry of more fishing, a ministry of more factories, a ministry of more forestry and mining. We have no ministry of cities and no ministry of science. What little attention to science there is, is buried deep within the ministry of factories (industry canada), along with (literally) over 20 other "priorities"

It's no wonder they're paying little attention to science - they're not structured to do so.
The split between the provincial responsibility for education and the federal mandate for research also causes endless wrangling and delays.

John Dupuis said...

Thanks for the comment, Richard, I couldn't agree more. I guess the challenge is to make sure science & technology is top of the mind for politicians rather than endless (oh no, not again!) constitutional wrangling. The Conservatives are certainly not predisposed to science and the Libs...well, they've been in charge most of the past 60+ years and look what it's gotten us.

Anonymous said...

There is clearly a desire among Canadians for more health and medical research funding according to a new Environics survey released by Research Canada, which represents more than 75 of Canada's major health and medical research funders and providers, both private and public.
The fact that less than 1 cent of every public health dollar goes to health amd medical research is an eye-opener.