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Weekly Roundup

September 9, 2010

The Globe and Mail reports that a Statistics Canada study confirms that a voluntary survey will introduce significant errors when compared with a mandatory survey. The study models a voluntary survey by tabulating 1996 long-form surveys submitted early – presumably before the long arm of the law reached out and forced scofflaws to submit them. The study showed that the numbers of renters and visible minorities would have been miscounted in a voluntary survey. While many argue that this confirms there are subgroups who will be less likely to fill out a voluntary survey, it may also suggest that renters and visible minorities are procrastinators who only fill out surveys at the last minute, mandatory or not. Either way, expect the government to announce the addition of questions about renting and visible minorities to the still-mandatory short form census: problem solved!

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Canada “slipped” in this year’s Times QS World University Rankings, from 11 to 10 spots in the top 200 (SFU slipped 0ut of the top 200, maybe because it started competing in the NCAA). Canada did well again, ranking behind only US (53), UK (29), Germany (12), Netherlands (11) and tying Japan (10) for most universities represented in the top 200. McGill was the only Canadian school in the top 20, with UofT, UBC, and UofA also making the top 60.

Good for us. I spent a bit of time last year looking at the meaning of these rankings, and concluded we were doing really well. This year’s a bit different. First, we’ve slipped from 3rd overall to 5th. Also, we had more in the top 40 than all countries save the US and UK – now we have two in the top 40, whereas Australia has three, France, Hong Kong, Japan, and Switzerland also have two. But these are in large part due to small changes in ranking position – UBC missed the top 40 by only two positions, after all.

How do we stack up when we account for variations in size? Using the top 200 as a general list of the world’s best universities, which countries work above their average? The small countries of Western Europe come out on top when the number of top universities are compared to either population or GDP. There is one university on the list for roughly every 2-million inhabitants in Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK – the Swiss lead the group with one for every 1.1-million people. New Zealand (1 per 1.5M), Israel (2.5M) and Australia (2.8M) also outperform Canada, which comes in tenth with one university in the top 200 for every 3.4-million inhabitants. The US (5.8M), Germany (6.8M), Japan (12M) and France (13M) are well down the list. The numbers are more or less the same when compared with GDP.

Last year, there was a sense that while we may not be producing any truly “elite” universities – none in the top ten in the world, for instance, only one in the top twenty – we were at least producing many very good ones. Relative to our size, however, we are producing fewer than others. This may be especially worrisome given that we have the second highest rate of spending on education relative to GDP in the OECD, behind only the US.

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Finally, a blue-ribbon panel of experts convened by CIHR has unanimously recommended against funding national clinical trials into so-called liberation therapy for MS, a recommendation our health minister quickly and fully accepted. The defensiveness detectable in Dr. Alain Beaudet’s official statement (“There is an overwhelming lack of scientific evidence on the safety and efficacy of the procedure, or even that there is any link between blocked veins and MS”, he said) suggests the science policy makers may be getting a little tired of the relentless pressure of patients’ groups and the media, and understandably so. This difficult issue is a perfect illustration of the difference I discussed earlier between policy for science and science for policy. Not funding expensive clinical trials for early-stage treatments because the science isn’t there? Good policy for science. Telling desperate patients that they cannot access an experimental treatment, even at their own risk and cost because the science isn’t there? Not good science for policy. I’ve written about this before, and I understand there are many of you who disagree with me. My feeling is that while science and evidence should play an essential role in shaping public policy, they must still be balanced by other concerns. I think the CIHR’s recommendations are prudent when it comes to allocating research funds, but Canadian MS patients have a right to seek the treatments of their choice, even experimental ones, and they are doing so outside the country in increasing numbers. So where’s the policy response to that?

One Comment leave one →
  1. Nilima permalink
    September 14, 2010 21:07

    There are some other interesting studies out recently.

    -The Economist (Sept. 11-17th, 2010) reports, on page 72, that nearly 35% of Canada’s university graduates ages 25-29 are underemployed (working at a lower skill level than trained for), second only to Spain in the comparison list, and much worse than, say, Hungary. I couldn’t find this in an online open-access version.

    – The Shanghai Jiaotong University rankings are out, http://www.arwu.org/. Canada doesn’t do too badly on the disciplinary (subject and field) rankings. And there are some surprises in those rankings for the self-professed Big 5.

    – Why, oh why, is SFU in the NCAA?

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