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Margin Notes

Canada is ‘treading water’ on its S&T performance

The country needs to aim higher, says latest STIC report.


Buried in the flurry of other news emanating from Ottawa on Tuesday was a damning report by Canada’s Science, Technology and Innovation Council, or STIC. The council concludes in its “State of the Nation” 2012 report that Canada “continues to tread water as a mid-level performer in science, technology and innovation” and says the country needs to “aim higher.” Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells described the report as “devastating” and an indicator of “long-term government failure.”

STIC’s mandate is to provide the federal government with “evidence-based science and technology advice” and to chart Canada’s performance in S&T and innovation relative to the rest of the world. The council has 17 members, including several university presidents and industry leaders, and is chaired by Howard Alper, who holds the title of Distinguished University Professor at the University of Ottawa.

This new report, the third public report from STIC, notes that Canada has “much to celebrate with respect to the high quality of our talent and our strength in generating new knowledge.” However, the country “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.” That latter point, roughly translated, means our science and tech graduates aren’t being hired for good jobs that make the best use of their education and training.

The council’s report breaks things down into three categories: talent, knowledge and business innovation. On the talent side, the report notes that, from 2006 to 2010, Canada saw an impressive 32 percent increase in the number of science degrees granted and a 7.3 increase in engineering degrees granted. However, Canada still lags in doctoral degrees granted in these areas, ranking 15th among OECD countries on this measure.

But, most importantly, Canada’s performance in employing these grads is disappointing. Using a measure which looks at the percentage of the labour force in the services sector occupied by science and technology workers, the council found that Canada is in the middle of OECD countries at about 39 percent. In the manufacturing labour force, Canada’s share was 11.5 percent, among the lowest in the OECD.

On the knowledge side, the report says the substantial investments in research in the higher education sector have reaped “significant rewards” – with a share of only 0.5 percent of global population, Canada accounted for 4.4 percent of the world’s natural sciences and engineering publications in 2010. However, Canada’s investment in higher-education R&D, or HERD, has declined as a percentage of gross domestic product. As a result, Canada’s rank among 41 economies has dropped from third in 2006 to ninth in 2011.

On the business innovation front, Canada also underperforms on the measure of business expenditure in R&D, or BERD. Although preliminary data suggests that BERD in Canada increased very slightly in 2011 and 2012, BERD intensity (BERD as a percentage of GDP) “has been in almost continuous decline for the past decade,” says the report. At 0.89 percent in 2011, Canada’s rank among comparator countries on BERD-to-GDP fell to 25th of 41 economies.

Looking more generally at gross domestic expenditures on R&D, or GERD, a similar pattern is noted. Canada’s GERD as a percentage of GDP peaked in 2001, when it reached 2.1 percent. Since 2001, however, despite the growth in R&D funding in Canada, GERD intensity has been declining, to the point where it reached a low of 1.7 percent in 2011. Canada’s declining GERD intensity has pushed its rank down from 16th position in 2006 to 23rd in 2011 (among 41 economies).

In many ways, this report simply confirms what we’ve been hearing for some time: that universities are more than holding up their end in terms of basic research and the production of highly skilled personnel, but university graduates are finding it difficult to get good jobs because the private sector is not investing sufficiently in innovation.

The federal government has been trying to address the issue by targeting more funds to applied – rather than fundamental – research and changing the mandate of the National Research Council, and yet things don’t seem to be improving. Meanwhile, on another front, the government finds itself battling the impression that it is waging a war on science, which surely isn’t helping matters. Recent cuts at Agriculture Canada, for instance, will reportedly affect the jobs of over 100 scientists – those highly qualified personnel that Canada needs so badly. The government is also receiving criticism for cutting back on basic research, another threat to innovation.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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