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The Black Hole

The state of science in Canada: Not bad, but the devil’s in the details


Last week, the Council of Canadian Academies released their The State of Science and Technology in Canada 2012 report and trumpeted the success of Canadian science and technology over the last six years (University Affairs has a news story on the report here). Overall, it seems we are performing well when research output, citation rate and international reputation are considered. If you simply read the executive summary you would certainly feel things are pretty rosy for Canada’s scientific community and their world performance. However, after a full reading of the report, I have noticed several very worrying trends that concern me going forward. While I wouldn’t say Canada is doing poorly, I would say that this is not a time for complacency and policy makers should be keenly aware of the details in this report, not just the summary.

Share of world papers and citations

One of the most striking omissions from the report’s findings was marked with a small asterisk concerning “General Science and Technology.” This category may seem like any other until you realize that the categorization of publications is primarily done on specialized journals, and all general journals (e.g. Science, Nature, PNAS, etc.) fall into this category. Ironically, despite high relative performance in many fields, Canada shows strikingly poor performance in general S&T. Further concern comes when you realize that the U.S., with its 27% of total papers, also lays claim to over 40% of the papers that fall in the top 1% of cited papers.

Of further note is our relatively poor output (measured by number of papers) in physics and chemistry, though this is amply compensated for by strong citation rates of those articles that are produced. This raises a red flag that can’t be properly resolved without further information – is Canada driving more money into fields that have higher citation rates (e.g. clinical medicine) at the expense of fields that traditionally do not produce as many papers? The panel, correctly I think, performed their analysis by couching relative impact within specific fields of research, but in doing so, I think they avoid assessing which fields are over- or under-supported by research dollars. The latter is a critical question for policy makers.

R&D spending

Canada is the only country in the entire OECD that had a net decline in research and development spending from 2005-2010 (-6%) compared to an average 17% increase across other OECD countries. This is particularly acute in the private sector (see Figure 3.3 and 3.5) and is a worrying trend.

Perhaps not surprising to many readers, most R&D expenditures in Canada take place in Ontario, Quebec, B.C. and Alberta, but 92% seems awfully high. While I grant that the bulk of the population also reside in these provinces (~85%), this is still quite imbalanced and makes me wonder how growing hubs like biotechnology in Halifax are meant to compete without appropriate investment.

Innovation still lagging behind

I won’t dwell on this one too much, as it has been a persistent thorn in the side for Canada – on average we patent less and generate far less money from royalties and licensing fees. Funnily enough, though, the citation rate of Canadian patents is amongst the highest, “indicating considerable impact in the development of related technologies.” The executive summary reads as if the latter far outweighs the former, but I would imagine that most people interested in Canada’s innovation culture would not be convinced. Not my specialty really, though there is a very telling fact tucked away in the report: we spent about $5 billion more licensing patents than the revenue generated from other countries licensing our intellectual property from 2005-2010.

Some final stamps to add to the collection

Other interesting tidbits concerning specific areas of research pop out of the report that didn’t really fit thematically with the other sections, but I thought they were worth mentioning:

  • On average the world has substantially increased its investment in research related to folklore – Canada has not.
  • Despite huge investment in natural resources, Canada’s investment in geology research is very low.

Overall, though, the expert panel has used broad and reasonable metrics to evaluate the state of science and technology and Canada appears to be on the right track. The only frustrating part of this report is that I think it will lull policymakers into complacency – “everything is fine in Canadian science, no need to pay attention.” I can only hope that people read beyond the summary.

P.S.:  And, two things you’d only notice if you were a Newfoundlander: the use of NF as an abbreviation when NL has been the official two letter code since 2001 and for some reason Newfoundland ranks 5th in Canada in terms of producing PhDs per capita. Imagine if they counted the number of us who have graduated from other schools …

Related posts:

Council of Canadian Academies: Another Progress(?) Update

Bold New Toppings: A closer look at the Council of Canadian Academies 3 year plan

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Andrew / November 10, 2012 at 12:41

    David, these are good points. I especially agree that the summary can be misleading, so it’s important to draw attention to the broader analysis.

    One thing that I took away from the report is just how poorly Canada is performing given its investment. Spending may have declined slightly, but we’re still well supported (see the following:

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