Treasuring talent, and spending accordingly

Tim Lougheed
November 2, 2022

Talent is nothing less than “the new oil”, according to Karimah Es Sabar, Board Chair of the Canadian Glycomics Network. She was addressing the House of Commons Standing Committee on Science and Research earlier this year, as part of its study on how to attract the best and brightest to Canadian research institutions and industries.

The Committee also heard how this network, which was created in 2015, has worked closely with more than 175 research groups across the country, which in turn provided training opportunities for more than 500 students. These efforts were presented as an example of the kind of undertaking that will be required to secure this new “oil” as a key resource for Canada’s future, not just in the life sciences, but across a range of technical disciplines and commercial sectors.

Such insights were compiled in the Committee’s report, which was presented to the House on October 24. The document included 13 recommendations to deal with various aspects of nurturing, supporting, and retaining individuals with outstanding expertise in key areas of research and development.

“The evidence heard by the Committee highlighted the importance of attracting and retaining talent, in terms of both the quality of scientific research in Canada and the capacity to innovate,” the report observed. Its findings also made clear that attracting and retaining are two distinct undertakings, both of which come with significant costs.

In terms of attracting talent from abroad, for example, Thomas Bell, a professor of microbial ecology at Imperial College, London, insisted that “top scientists are attracted by top science, and the rest … is window dressing.”

This perspective was contrasted with Canada’s lacklustre investment in R&D, which in 2020 was 1.7 percent of GDP, less than two-thirds of the OECD average of 2.7 percent and far below the rate of countries that are home to the world’s leading research centres. This observation prompted the committee to include among its recommendations a call for the federal government to review and increase its investments in fundamental research, specifically by enhancing the budgets of the three main granting councils.

Getting talented individuals to Canada is just one challenge, however. The working lives of these newcomers need to remain attractive once they are here. That means ensuring that they will have some security in their employment and an ability to pursue the work that drew them here in the first place. The Committee therefore included recommendations to shorten the bureaucratic pathway for foreign students to obtain permanent residency in Canada, as well as for the federal and provincial governments to develop incentives for post-secondary institutions to create more tenured, research-intensive positions.

The Committee’s recommendations also considered measures that would enhance the potential of Canada’s home-grown talent pool, such as increasing the amount of scholarships and fellowships to match the cost of living being faced by students. The report outlined the conundrum faced by many academics as they reach the status of post-doctoral work, which can offer very limited pay and benefits, often with few opportunities for career advancement. The Committee argued that a research funding program targeting these individuals could improve their prospects, by enabling them to achieve research goals that benefit not only themselves, but also Canadian society and economy.

The Committee heard from witnesses who pointed out that most students in science and technology do not go on to academic posts, yet these individuals will represent the kind of skilled talent that is needed in a number of other occupations. Shiri Breznitz, a professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, noted that “a combination of entrepreneurship education from different organizations such as government agencies, incubators, accelerators, and universities promotes the establishment of high technology firms.” When that kind of work and educational experience takes place in another country, she added, individuals who return to Canada are much more likely to become entrepreneurs.

In that light, the Committee’s final recommendation was for a federal initiative to provide students with educational opportunities and work placements that would offer this kind of experience to young people who will ultimately find themselves on the leading edge of technical and commercial innovation.

As part of submitting the report to Parliament, Committee Chair Kirsty Duncan formally requested a government response.


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