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Report on the report of STICC: Basic researchers can’t do it all

May 7, 2009

STICC Diagnosis of state of STI in the nation:

  1. (Good) Canadian researchers are among the most prolific in the world in publishing their work in peer-reviewed journals.
  2. (Good) Canada ranks fourth in the OECD in university-performed R&D funded by business (at more than twice the G7 average)
  3. (Good) Canadian universities produce spin-off private companies at one of the highest rates in the world.
  4. (Good) Our 15-yr old students are 3rd in the world in science, math, and reading and we have the highest percentage of the OECD countries of adults with tertiary education.
  5. (Bad) Despite the academic research community’s health, it hasn’t been matched by growth and activity in private, “Business” R&D.
  6. (Bad) When Business, University, and Government R&D are all considered, Canada’s expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP is below the G7 and OECD averages, and is roughly half that of the top countries Sweden, Finland, Japan, and Korea.
  7. (Bad) Investment in Business R&D has been basically flat in Canada since 2001. Only 55% of Canada’s total R&D is performed by the business sector, compared to 77 percent in Japan; 70 percent in the U.S. and Germany; 63 percent in France; and 62 percent in the U.K.
  8. (Bad) We are only 21st in the OECD in the percentage of science and engineering degrees awarded to graduates, though this is still higher than the US, and 20th in the OECD in the number of PhDs awarded per capita.
  9. (Bad) Canada produces only half as many business graduates as the US, and that managers at Canadian firms tend to have less education than their American counterparts. (Is it why the government recently made changes to SSHRC funding to tie it to business studies?)
  10. Conclusion: We have a problem: Business R&D sector may be the weak link in the STI “system”. But is it for Government to provide more money to Business to encourage it to innovate? but wait a minute: “for the 13 OECD countries for which data are available, Canada has the richest government support of business R&D, as a percentage of GDP.”

What to do? First (according to Rob) let’s be less fancy and admit that  Science, Technology, and Innovation parts of the “system” correspond roughly to Basic Research, Engineering, and Business.

  1. STIC’s suggestion: The first part of the system is working well and strongly, but that engineering and innovation by the business sector need to be improved. Unfortunately, government investment in that area doesn’t seem to be the answer. The report’s authors suggest that strengthening links between the sectors will help, though government funding of basic research is already often tied to matching private funds and doesn’t seem to be generating the desired effects.
  2. Rob’s suggestion: Instead of targeting basic research to make it more technological and innovative, focus should be placed on improving the under-performing sectors. Basic research should remain a powerful engine for when the rest of the system gets tuned up. Increased and prioritized focus on innovative engineering programs and incentives matched with better business practices and training are the more appropriate places to tinker with the system. Basic researchers can’t do it all – they need to be supported by strong engineering and business components, and that’s where the government’s priorities should be focused.
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