Since the mid-20th century, countries around the world have recognized that robust scientific and research activities underpin the pursuit of prosperous, just and resilient societies.
Today, international observers wonder if Canada is withdrawing from this international consensus. While leading countries are doubling down on investments in research and innovation to confront the turbulent 21st century, Canada is falling behind and doing so without explicit justification. Complacency about Canada’s continued high ranking in international surveys risks overlooking, at our peril, the future consequences of today’s lack of investments.
How did we get here? A glance back provides a valuable perspective on the urgency of action today.
In Canada, the first wave of debate about domestic capacity in research began during the 1950s. At that time, Canada remained an intellectual colony dependent on other countries to educate those in leadership positions across society. While Canada had recently gained increasing political sovereignty, our universities mainly depended on foreign-trained professors who taught imported instructional material.
By Canada’s centennial celebrations in 1967, royal commissions and task forces had successfully called for major initiatives to build a strong made-in-Canada higher education system. In the following decades and funded through an implicit federal-provincial partnership, Canadian universities began providing the domestic capacity needed to underpin national sovereignty and to move Canada onto the world stage.
Then, in the 1990s, deepening concern about Canada’s economy led to renewed debate about research and innovation. The Auditor General of Canada reported in 1994 “Our audit has shown that an effective, highly focused, national science and technology strategy is critical to survival and growth in today’s high-technology economic environment.”
In response, the National Advisory Board on Science and Technology (NABST), initially created in 1987 with the Prime Minister as Chair, organized a pan-Canadian consultation. The public meetings explored how climate change and digital transformations were highlighting the need for Canada to rely less on what was in the ground and more on the talent and expertise of its people.
The most important debate assessed the relevant merits of “buy or make” approaches to research and innovation. Did Canada require more than a solid domestic capacity? Were major investments truly needed to make Canada internationally competitive?
Yes, emphasized the NABST’s 1995 report Healthy, Wealthy and Wise: A Framework for an Integrated Federal Science and Technology Strategy. The report called for a strategy that “builds upon the mutual relationship between the quality of life, the creation of wealth (and jobs) and the advancement of knowledge.”
In March 1996, Canada announced the Science and Technology for the New Century: A Federal Strategy. The strategy placed universities at the centre of the envisioned research and innovation ecosystem, recognizing the economic importance in Canada of SMEs (small and medium enterprises), foreign-owned multinationals, and industries that were not yet feeling competitive pressure to innovate. The federal expectation was that as profound economic transformations had more and more impact in Canada, they would force all sectors to embrace innovation and universities had to be prepared to support their efforts.
The federal government implemented this strategy by focusing on the development of highly qualified, talented individuals who could participate in the international effort to advance knowledge and understanding for the benefit of humanity. Their expertise would ensure that Canada could tap the global pool of knowledge while contributing new insights, discoveries and breakthroughs to inform innovation across all sectors. To combat “brain drain,” Canada acted decisively to promote “brain gain.”
With the creation of the Canada Graduate Scholarships, Canada Research Chairs, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation, along with substantial budget increases for the tri-council research granting agencies, Canadian universities began moving from domestically solid to internationally competitive.
Successive federal governments consistently reaffirmed in national strategies and reports, their agreement with the international consensus that research and innovation provide the path toward a sustainable, prosperous, and just future.
In the past several years, however, Canada has been losing domestic research capacity just as increased global challenges intensify pressure to innovate. Extreme weather events and raging forest fires highlight the increasingly stark reality of worsening climate change. Digital transformations now include the challenges and opportunities of generative AI, cybersecurity, and workforce composition and definition. COVID-19 exposed both increased global interconnectedness and the renewed importance of geopolitical borders.
These profound global and domestic challenges mean that every business, institution and community must now seek to operate sustainably, be digitally enabled, and prepared to face expected and unexpected challenges. As anticipated since the 1990s, an increasing number of companies are belatedly turning to universities to help respond; in 2020, business expenditures on university research and development reached $1.258 billion, the highest level ever.
Unfortunately, despite the increasing challenges that necessitate innovation, the ability of leading universities to support Canada’s research and innovation ecosystem is now at risk.
Reports of “brain drain” are becoming increasingly common as Canada’s peers re-invest heavily in research as the foundation of their economic growth strategies. The US Chips and Science Act, announced two weeks before the Inflation Reduction Act, provides $200 billion over ten years for science (including $81 billion earmarked for the National Science Foundation). The Atlantic Declaration, a multi-pronged partnership between the US and the UK, was announced this year; it will define science and technology cooperation for both countries. Japan has similarly announced a $87 billion fund to promote the country as a science and technology leader, as has the UK with a goal to spend £20 billion on research by 2024-25. These investments threaten Canada’s sovereignty by reducing domestic capacity and national security.
While high inflation in recent years has significantly weakened the entire research ecosystem, this has been compounded by two consecutive Budgets of 2022 and 2023 which did not include any new investment for Canada’s research funding agencies for the first time since the 1990s. Initial actions by this government were welcome, including creating a Minister of Science and a Chief Science Advisor, and implementing the Naylor report with significant investments in Budget 2018. Since then, despite the central role of world-class research capacity during the pandemic, the federal government has steadily lost focus on science and research.
The value of the tri-agency scholarships and fellowships has not changed in 20 years, despite 52% inflation since 2003, and is no longer globally competitive.
Canada now ranks 26th in the OECD in the proportion of those with graduate-level education.
Canada’s global rank in the number of researchers per 1,000 plummeted from 8th in 2011 to 18th in 2019.
These and other indicators illustrate a hollowing out of Canada’s research ecosystem. This has been increasingly noticed and reported in Canada and globally. A recent article in the Times Higher Education repeated the now common international observation that “after a big early funding spike for basic research, there is a growing sense of drift – and mounting concern about Canada’s future.”
Our past makes clear that the present is no time for drift, no time for losing focus on how Canada can pursue prosperity, resiliency and justice in the rapidly changing and turbulent 21st century. We must act now to bolster domestic research capacity to strengthen our own national security.
1- Auditor General of Canada Report, 1994, Vol. 6, Ch. 9, paragraph 9.10.
2- National Advisory Board on Science and Technology, Healthy, Wealthy and Wise: A Framework for an Integrated Federal Science and Technology Strategy, Ottawa, Ontario, Government of Canada, 1995, https://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2021/isde-ised/st94/ST94-30-1995-eng.pdf.
3- Industry Canada, Science and technology for the new century: a federal strategy, Ottawa, Ontario, Government of Canada, 1996, https://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2022/isde-ised/c2/C2-290-1996-eng.pdf.
4-Statistics Canada, Table 27-10-0025-01, ‘Provincial estimates of research and development expenditures in the higher education sector, by funding sector and type of science (x 1,000,000)’, 2023, https://doi.org/10.25318/2710002501-eng
5-US Congress, Chips and Science Act, H.R.4346, 117th Congress, 2022, https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/4346/text
6-The White House, The Atlantic Declaration: A Framework for a Twenty-First Century U.S.-UK Economic Partnership, 2023, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/06/08/the-atlantic-declaration-a-framework-for-a-twenty-first-century-u-s-uk-economic-partnership/
7-Komaki Ito and Yuko Takeo, ‘Japan’s ¥10 trillion innovation fund ramps up alternative focus’, The Japan Times, January 27, 2022, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/01/27/business/japan-innovation-fund/
8- HM Treasury, Autumn Statement 2022, UK Government, London, United Kingdom, 2022, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/autumn-statement-2022-documents, p. 34
9-Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, “Educational attainment of 25-64 year-olds (2022): Percentage of adults with a given level of education as the highest level attained”, in Education at a Glance 2023: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, 2023, https://doi.org/10.1787/c5373fc9-en.
10- Bouchard, Frédéric, et al. Report of the Advisory Panel of the Federal Research Support System. ISED Citizen Services Centre, 2023, https://ised-isde.canada.ca/site/panel-federal-research-support/sites/default/files/attachments/2023/Advisory-Panel-Research-2023.pdf, p.45.
11- Paul Basken, ‘Is Justin Trudeau failing the Canadian science test?’, Times Higher Education, July 20, 2023, https://www.timeshighereducation.com/depth/justin-trudeau-failing-canadian-science-test