Canada punches above its weight in research. So what?

Mark Mann
November 20, 2019

A common refrain in Canadian innovation circles holds that Canada “punches above its weight” in research strength. This is certainly true. We invest heavily in higher-ed research and private sector R&D—$6 billion between ISED and SR&ED, plus the Tri-Council budgets. And with only 0.5 percent of the world’s population, we still manage to produce 4 percent of the world’s peer-reviewed publications. 

We retain very little of the value of all our direct and indirect support for research, however. Canada ranks a dismal 17th on the Global Innovation Index, and lags behind most other OECD countries in productivity. What’s the point of punching above our weight in research if we’re still getting clobbered on commercialization?

It’s this concern about return on investment that animates new initiatives in Ontario and Alberta that aim to tie funding for higher education to performance indicators (see Lindsay Borthwick's story in this issue). Ontario's Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities says it wants to focus on "impact and outcomes rather than inputs," particularly for skills and jobs, as well as economic lift. But the plan seems to be a red herring. Despite its ambitions, the Ontario budget has committed no new funding to universities and colleges. Experts say this type of program only works if it's tied to new money; otherwise, it's just a smokescreen for a cut.

We may find cause for celebration, however, in the newly released details of the National Research Council's ambitious re-imagining initiative (see Mark Henderson's story). Through renewed emphasis on research excellence, collaboration and student training, the NRC is returning to bottom-up decision-making and increasing interaction between its laboratories and the Industrial Research Assistance Program. The NRC's strategy invests heavily in fundamental research, while providing increased funding to disruptive technologies and industrial projects.

Of course, Canada should continue promoting its research ecosystem. To thrive, we need the full spectrum of research, from basic to applied, as exemplified in the NRC's renewal. Canada's research strengths are incredible, but when it comes to building a knowledge economy, we can't afford to be satisfied with our successes if we keep ignoring our weaknesses.


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