Canada’s in­vest­ment in re­search falls be­hind

The Sudbury Star - - OPINION - DAVID HILL SPE­CIAL TO POST­MEDIA NET­WORK David Hill is sci­en­tific di­rec­tor of the Law­son Health Re­search In­sti­tute.

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.

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