Analysis: Mounties and big bounties

May 17, 2002

Worldwide, there is a worrying shortage of scientists but Canada has made huge strides in tackling the problem. The THES reports

There is an acknowledged worldwide shortage of scientists, especially in physical sciences and engineering. As fewer people study these subjects at university level, governments worldwide are assessing how this will affect their economies and how to increase undergraduate numbers. Whoever finds workable solutions will gain distinct economic and quality of life advantages.

The UK Treasury is rumoured to be considering giving the science research councils up to £500 million in the run-up to this summer's comprehensive spending review. But Canada may already have stolen a march on the UK.

Science minister Lord Sainsbury has been keeping a close eye on that country, meeting his counterparts there regularly and taking a close interest in its science and technology policies. It is easy to see the parallels between the initiatives of the two nations.

Since 1997, the Canadians have begun reviving a demoralised and financially neglected science base across the country's 93 higher education institutions. Almost £1.4 billion has been poured into infrastructure under the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, comparable to the £1.75 billion infrastructure funds allocated jointly by the Wellcome Trust and the UK government. But unlike the UK, a further £90 million was recently granted to help meet indirect research costs.

But the £400 million Canada Research Chairs' bid to fund 2,000 new research chairs far outstrips its closest UK equivalent, the Research Merit Awards from the Royal Society, which have created 20 "Beckhams" of science so far.

And Canadian salaries pack a punch. Canadian academics' spending power is almost twice that of those in the UK and 10 per cent more than those in the US.

Canadian research councils fund a far greater proportion of grant applications but at a lower level than that sought. So although more researchers have federally initiated research funds, they are expected to raise up to 50 per cent of the cash elsewhere.

The Canadian innovation strategy launched this February also called for a 50 per cent increase in the number of masters and PhD students by 2010.

Sir Gareth Roberts, in his review of the supply of scientists for the Treasury, put schools at the crux of the supply chain. He flags the Canadian system as a good example. There, science is taught as a general subject until 16 with an emphasis on relevance and accessibility. Only then is it split into biology, chemistry, physics and earth sciences. But to qualify for university, even to read arts subjects, students need to have post-16 science; many take biology. And to keep teachers enthused by their subjects, public funding is available for them to carry out research projects alongside a local university.

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