Canada urged to prize human capital over research output

Universities should use federal budget boost to help companies keep innovating, not to do it themselves, top science policy expert says

January 6, 2019
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Feeling a downward drift in innovation and university research, Canada has begun throwing a lot of money at the problem. But unless channelled properly, a leading expert has warned, the country may overlook a solution that already works.

The government appears to be growing overly concerned with boosting university research breakthroughs, in part because of the splashy promises needed to sell the public on bigger science budgets, said Peter Nicholson, the founding president of the Council of Canadian Academies.

The taxpayer money would be better spent, however, helping universities improve and expand their production of graduates who can help Canadian industry exploit innovations from elsewhere, Dr Nicholson argued.

“What really counts”, said Dr Nicholson, a former business executive and chief adviser to former prime minister Paul Martin, “is how good are you and how quick are you at picking up the best ideas from around the world and applying them effectively in the Canadian context. That’s what matters.”

Whatever the solution, the worry in Canada seems widespread. The latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings show Canada in a three-year slide in its university research reputation. And in this year’s Bloomberg Innovation Index, Canada has fallen two spots to 22nd globally, leapfrogged by China, Italy and Poland.

Similar indicators of decline in research output were highlighted last year in a government-funded study led by David Naylor, a former University of Toronto president. The Naylor report urged millions of dollars in new spending on basic research to boost Canada’s innovative output.

The government responded this year with a pledge to increase research and science funding by nearly C$4 billion (£3.1 billion) over five years, including C$1.2 billion for fundamental research, its largest allocation ever.

Yet even if greater university-centred scientific discovery is now a critical need for Canada, it is not clear how enthusiastically the institutions and their researchers might pursue it. Hopes of business-world profits seem a poor motivator for most faculty, said Wissam Aoun, who works with academics and inventors on both sides of the US-Canada border as a teacher of intellectual property law at the University of Windsor and the University of Detroit Mercy.

“Canadians are told they need to be more entrepreneurial,” Dr Aoun said. “And the question is: should they be?”

Canada’s political leaders nevertheless are right to sense a looming problem, even if they have not fully identified the appropriate university-based solution, Dr Nicholson said.

That’s because Canada has relied heavily on two strengths that Dr Nicholson has long predicted will lose their potency. First is the historic reliance of Canadian industry on innovations by its nearby US partners, which will shrink in importance to Canada as Asia becomes more economically and scientifically dominant. Second is Canada’s great wealth in natural resources, which will grow less valuable as new technologies allow companies to produce more substitute materials.

Dr Nicholson said that universities needed to step up their production of graduates with the skills that Canadian companies need to translate and adapt the discoveries of others, saying that Canadian industries have “exploited this formula in an immensely profitable way over the years”.

Canada’s universities and the general public should therefore not fret over the economic returns on the newly expanded investment in research dollars, Dr Nicholson continued. Instead, he said, government funders should make “the slightly more abstract argument that the public payoff of this investment is the production of highly qualified people”.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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