Canada’s investment in research falls behind
Last week the Nobel Prizes for 2017 were announced, recognizing incredible advances in science that will impact all our lives for the better. If you were looking for Canadian scientists amongst the teams, you would be disappointed.
According to a federal government report commissioned by the minister of science titled Investing in Canada’s Future — Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research and released in April, Canada’s momentum in the sciences has never been worse.
Our country’s investment in key emerging areas such as artificial intelligence, clean technology, nanotechnology, immunotherapy, bioinformatics or bio-engineering is flat-lined or declining, and falling seriously behind competitor nations.
We are not talking about matching the United States or Germany. Canada invests less in science research and development relative to gross domestic product than does Taiwan or Singapore. Why should we care? Because smart science delivers technologies we take for granted every day, such as Siri on our iPhones, minimally invasive surgery and secure online banking.
Science also creates companies, delivers high-paying and rewarding jobs, and is the backbone of the economy.
In London, Ont., jobs that depend on advancing science include those at Lawson Health Research Institute, the research institute of London Health Sciences Centre and St. Joseph’s Health Care London and where I work; academic institutions such as Western University and Fanshawe College; and local businesses generating health devices, computer software and engineered products. A lack of investment in science could be devastating to our city.
This report places the failure to invest in science at the door of successive federal governments during the past decade.
Of course, it is not only government that should invest in science. It is industry that takes proven scientific findings and translates them into products we all consume.
But these innovative products need to start somewhere, most often in the laboratory. Fostering high risk, fundamental discovery science should be a core responsibility of government in a knowledge-driven economy.
In Canada, the contribution of federal funds to discovery science is now below 25 per cent of the total research investment, and lower than most of our competitor nations. Consequently, research funds are scarce, laboratories are closing, fewer students are receiving advanced training, and fewer new businesses are emerging. It is not too late. The report provides evidence to show that Canadian scientists are still respected leaders in their fields. The engine simply needs fuel.
To return Canada’s discovery science enterprise back to 2006 productivity levels, we require an additional investment of $1.3 billion during four years, representing 0.1 per cent of the entire federal budget for each of those years.
The investment quickly pays for itself. Every $1 invested in fundamental research has been calculated to return $2.20 to $2.50 in direct and indirect economic activity.
Next year’s federal budget is being put together right now in Ottawa, and we have an opportunity to reclaim our past reputation as a discovery nation; a nation that brought the world insulin, the Canadarm, Pablum, canola and the electron microscope.
The journey toward that next Canadian Nobel Prize needs to start now.