Could do Better

Op-Ed article published in The Gazette
Prof. Heather Munroe-Blum
May 14, 2009

“Could do better.”

Three words on a school report card with which many parents and many students are too often familiar.

You are not living up to your potential, the teacher says, you need to apply yourself.

Look past the repeated scolding, and there’s an underlying optimism in this message. Many often miss it: You can do it. You have the ability. You have the talent. You’re not hopeless. You can succeed.

The federal government’s State of the Nation Report on Canada’s science, technology and innovation system made public on May 5 is, in effect, a report card on how this country is doing with respect to conducting world-leading research and development, growing successful industries and supporting the nurturing of Canadian talent. It measures how well (or how poorly) Canada does when it comes to a host of important areas: how much business spends on research, how well we manage to transfer new technology from universities to business, how well businesses and universities collaborate on research and development, how well we do as a nation in attracting international talent, how well we provide workplace training, how well we encourage our researchers to pursue scientific inquiry wherever it takes them and, not least, how well we educate our citizens.

And if this report were reduced to three words, they would be: could do better.

At the same time, those words deliver that underlying optimistic message: could do better because we can do better. We have significant assets. Canada can again make education a national obsession; we can improve productive collaboration among governments and between business and universities. The report shows these are the real engines for this country. We can establish priorities in knowledge-generation and research so we commit our resources to areas where we can be real world leaders, while maintaining an effective trajectory and scale of investment in basic research – the pipeline for any applied research and related benefits. We can provide the kind of long-lasting, predictable levels of support our universities and university researchers must have in order to achieve world-class results that can be shared with leading industries. We can move this country up the ladder of those that drive social and economic development in a host of areas around the world. It will take commitment. It will take a shared and coherent vision. It will take leadership in different corners of this country, not just in the House of Commons; everyone has a role to play.

The report identifies the enemies: complacency, working in isolation, and not benchmarking our strengths and weaknesses nationally and internationally. We have to do a better job of working together strategically – governments at all levels, business and the academic world – in order to keep Canada competitive, to ensure industrial and technological progress in this country that will help drive job-creation and prosperity. The alternative is not pretty: being left behind in the race to innovate, to end up buying others’ products, others’ technology, to see our best and brightest look elsewhere to exercise their talents and ambitions, taking jobs, prosperity and quality of life with them.

It is, of course, not a new message. Forty years ago, alarm bells were rung in this country about our “branch plant” status, about an economic situation in which Canada provided raw materials for industries around the world to use to their advantage while we managed to do a bit of manufacturing on the side, but where research and development, the “high-end” work, was done closer to the “home office” – usually in another country.

Is our C+ score today (as measured against our international competitors) a lingering legacy of the branch-plant image and mentality that belonged to a previous generation? Perhaps. But we have since grown up as a nation, at home and abroad, and we have enhanced and expanded our business and research capabilities dramatically since those angst-filled days of self-examination and self-recrimination.

So now the tough question: why haven’t we moved farther forward?

We do some things very well. Our share of R&D led by universities is second in the world only to Sweden and well above G-7 averages. This good news is offset by two countervailing facts: methodologies for reporting Higher Education Research and Development are uneven across nations (it would appear our approach is one of the few that factors in the institutions’ own investment, for example) and our BERD (Business Expenditure in R&D) in Canada is comparatively low.

We publish a great deal of high-quality scientific research compared with many other countries but we haven’t had a new Nobel Prize awarded to a scientist in Canada in decades and we have a surprising dearth of scientists holding the world’s top prizes, or universities that are recognized world-wide. We don’t do well in establishing the crucial relationships that make the most of our best scientists and their work, or that foster the transfer of research to industry so discovery can evolve into economic and other benefits. Government in Canada carries by far the heaviest load when it comes to partnering with universities in innovation and discovery. That should be a concern to us. There remains plenty of room for industry to play a significant leadership role as well.

We have a well-educated workforce, compared with other OECD countries, and in fact we lead when it comes to those aged 25 to 64 who have completed some kind of higher education. But in pushing on to the next level – the university degree or the graduate degree – we fall back fast, and we rank second-last among 17 similar countries when it comes to the percentage of the population with PhDs, the group that leads when it comes to innovation and discovery in universities, industry and government.

What do we need to do as a nation? Celebrate excellence and embrace the idea that post-graduate education will take us places an ordinary degree cannot. Start early, and ensure most Canadians are literate, that education is reasserted as a family, community and national value, and encourage vastly greater partnerships of governments, business and universities in order to drive innovation and ingenuity. Have the vision to understand that we must support high-quality basic research if we are to be incubators of creativity and hatch those unpredictable, transformational windfall discoveries.

Successive federal governments over the last decade, along with several provinces, have made strong inroads in this regard and the underfunding of the mid-1990s is being redressed. Programs such as the Canada Excellence Research Chairs, the Vanier Scholarships and the current government’s major, $2-billion program in infrastructure repair and maintenance for post-secondary education are unique, strong and fundamentally important investments in our science, technology and innovation capacity and they build upon their predecessors’ innovative programs.

What is missing now is a national commitment to depoliticize this fundamental area. No other modern jurisdiction subjects its development of sustained and effective investment in research and scholarship to the vicissitudes of politics and government transition that Canada and its provinces seem to thrive on. This brings about stuttering uncertainty.

No community, institution, corporation or nation can thrive in this day and age without a clear commitment to harness benefits through strategic collaboration, to benchmark performance at national and international levels and commit to lead by world standards in key areas of education, science, technology and innovation. In these and other ways, the federal government is and has been of considerable help, but, as the report indicates, it is really time to raise our game.

It is time to shake off the sense of complacency that seems to have seeped into this country’s bones – that getting by is good enough. There is no longer any “good enough.” We will move forward or we will fall back.

Could do better? Yes we can and, in fact, let’s do better. Because, as the STIC report indicates, other countries are not standing still and they won’t wait for us to catch up.

Heather Munroe-Blum is Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University and a member of the Science, Technology and Innovation Council.

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