Alex Binkley on need to improve science

Alex Binkley is a foremost political and economic analyst, whose website is www.alexbinkley.com. Readers will be aware that his columns in True North Perspective have foreseen political and economic developments in Canada. This week in ...

The Binkley Report

Canadians should think past Senate follies of blatant greed

and focus on a science policy that betrays national interests

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective
State of the Nation, 2012 - click to visit STIC and download full report  
Click image above to download a PDF version of the report or visit http://www.stic-csti.ca.  

7 June 2013 — Rather than fretting over the latest Senate follies, Canadians should be thinking about a report from the Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC) that says ever so politely that Canada sucks when it comes to those subjects, which are vital to our national prosperity.

“Canada continues to tread water as a mid-level performer in science, technology, and innovation,” the report, State of the Nation 2012, notes. “Canada has to aim higher and aspire for global leadership on key STI measures.”

Council member Heather Munroe-Blum, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University, noted that “Canada ranked only 15th in the OECD (in R&D spending) – we need to continue to improve our performance if we are to compete with, and break into the ranks of, the world's top five performing countries.”

While governments have a sorry record when it comes to science and innovation, Sophie Forest, Managing Partner of Brightspark Ventures, pointed out, “Canadian business investment in research and development has continuously declined over the past decade.

In 2011, Canada ranked 25th out of 41 economies. Increased business R&D investment is essential to Canada's future as a nation of innovators.” Ah, the joys of so much foreign ownership of our economy.

Canada has much to celebrate with respect to the high quality of our talent and our strength in generating new knowledge, says Council Chair Howard Alper. However, Canada continues to lag in private sector investment in innovation and transferring knowledge into the marketplace, as well as deploying our STI talent to best advantage in the labour force.

“In order for Canada to create jobs and opportunity in a competitive world, we must aim higher,” he notes. “We cannot be satisfied with the status quo or incremental progress. That is why STIC members have identified five areas, in particular, where concerted action is needed to reach global leadership."

The report compares Canada’s progress from a baseline of 2008, and while there have been improvements,  

"For each of these areas, we have identified the world's top five performing countries and the threshold that Canada would have to attain to break into their ranks," said Council member Simon Pimstone, President and CEO of Vancouver-based Xenon Pharmaceuticals. “We believe that enhanced performance in these five areas will help secure Canada's future as a global STI leader, bringing significant economic and societal benefits.”

Meanwhile Gary Goodyear, our alleged minister of science and technology, was pleased with the report. “Our government wants to ensure Canada's place among the world's most innovative countries.”

This is the crowd that has stripped the National Research Council of much of its basic research capability to focus on short term projects.

Goodyear. “Making sure we have a strong economy and are able to tackle science-based health, environmental and social issues are critical for Canada's future growth and well-being,” he said. The government’s poor record on health and environment issues should make the report an uncomfortable read for the minister so we will likely never hear of it again. The Council’s funding will probably dry up.

The report works from a 2008 baseline to compare Canada's performance to global science, technology and innovation leaders. The five key indicators it tracked were business R&D performance, private sector investment in Information and Communications Technologies, higher education expenditures on R&D, and science and engineering doctoral degrees granted per 100,000 population.

On the plus side, half of adult Canadians have a university or college education and the number of science and engineering graduates is rising, the report noted.

“However, to further enhance this talent base, Canada must produce more graduates at the doctoral level,” it said. “Production of doctoral graduates reflects a country’s potential to engage in cutting-edge R&D and to train the next generation of talent.

“In 2010, Canada ranked 15th in the OECD in the number of science and engineering doctoral degrees granted (per 100,000 population). This positioned us at about 64 percent of the threshold that we would have to attain to break into the ranks of the top five performing countries in this area.”

Canada also needs to improve the number of science and technology jobs. Our current results leaves us in the middle of OECD pack and near the rear when it comes to scienctists and engineers in the manufacturing sector.

One bright spot is that “With a share of only 0.5% of global population, Canada accounted for 4.4% of the world's natural sciences and engineering publications in 2010 — eighth after other countries with significantly larger populations. But Canada cannot be complacent on this front. Canada's higher education investment in R&D (HERD) as a proportion of GDP has fluctuated, declining to 0.66 percent in 2011. With this decline, Canada's rank among 41 economies has dropped from fourth in 2008 and third in 2006, to ninth in 2011. Canada must do better at transferring knowledge into the marketplace.”

The report also pointed out, “There was also a general downward trend in the number of spinoff companies created from higher education institutions between 2000 and 2010 — although promising signs of an increase in 2011.”

The full report is available at http://www.stic-csti.ca.

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