Canadian Nobelists warn country over innovation malaise

Top scientists say Canada must provide more fulfilling careers for its science graduates

March 5, 2021
Abandoned train in Canada
Source: iStock

Three Canadian Nobel laureates have warned their country that its academic research enterprise faces a tough future if it does not do more to stimulate the development of the industries that will employ its graduates.

In an online forum hosted by the Embassy of Sweden and Universities Canada, the Nobelists in fields of physics and medicine said that Canada needs to develop more homegrown brainpower and then avoid seeing it head abroad.

Canada’s problem of losing its scientific edge is exemplified by its once dominant optics industry, said Donna Strickland, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Waterloo who shared the 2018 Nobel in physics.

With a domestic industry led by Nortel Networks and JDS Uniphase some 20 years ago, Professor Strickland said, “We had no problem then convincing students to study optics – there were jobs there.”

By comparison, said Michael Houghton, professor of virology at the University of Alberta who shared the 2020 Nobel in physiology and medicine, biotechnology students in the US now enjoy that security.

“Anybody in California that goes in and does an undergraduate degree in the biological sciences is pretty confident they’ll have a career in biotech,” Professor Houghton said.

“That’s what we have to do in Canada – we have to make a career in biotechnology, in biomedicine, more available,” he said. “And Canada has the intellect to do that, it has the basic science repositories to do that – we have to convert it into translation and industry.”

They were joined in their appeals by Arthur McDonald, professor emeritus of physics at Queen’s University. Professor McDonald, who shared the 2015 Nobel in physics, suggested putting a national emphasis on quantum computing and artificial intelligence.

The shortfall in strategy and ambition is apparent among both industry leaders and the federal government, said Professor McDonald, who was recognised by the Nobel committee for his work in discovering that neutrinos experience changes as they travel the vast distances of space.

“The industry itself has to become more innovation-motivated, and the government can support that,” he said.

One clear need at the federal level, Professor McDonald said, was for the creation of a single point of contact to help scientists – whether individuals or part of a large team – negotiate the legal hurdles associated with forming international partnerships.

“The government can do more than it does to encourage science and technology cooperation,” he said. “It’s very difficult, when someone is attempting to bring together a large international collaboration, to know exactly who it is that one needs to speak to in Ottawa.”

On the university side, Professor Strickland said, there were still too many faculty members who gave the message that students in the sciences should aspire to careers in academia, when the bulk of the jobs are elsewhere.

“There’s an overall feeling in the students of almost hopelessness because in Canada they’re sitting there going, ‘I’ve got this great PhD idea, but where can I go?’” she said.

“A lot of people in Canadian academic circles are feeling unheard and don’t know how to reach out,” said Professor Strickland, whose Nobel marked her work on a laser technology known as chirped pulse amplification.

Professor Houghton, honoured for identifying the hepatitis C virus, urged greater Canadian government investment in initiatives that smooth the transition of lab discoveries to the marketplace. He cited as an example the Small Business Innovation Research programme in the US.

Policies aside, Professor Strickland said she feared that Western populations have simply become too complacent about their success.

“We have a real problem in the West,” she said. “As China gets stronger, they’re going to keep their own students, and I can tell you that those of us in the West count on Chinese students to come, because they love science, and we’ve lost our love of science here.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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