Take any country in the world and ask yourself these questions: what are the necessary conditions for the wellbeing of its peoples and its increased prosperity? How can countries respond to various sociological, technological, economic, health and environmental transformations in ways that contribute to the betterment of its citizens? The simple answer is that any ambitious country will need a privileged access to the best talents and the best ideas. We know this. We all know this. And yet, too many of us still treat higher education and the research activities it makes possible as a certification exercise, or “merely” as an aspirational activity. In a strange way, we are behaving as if research and innovation are luxury pastimes of advanced societies, when in fact they are the necessary conditions of growth and prosperity at the individual and collective level. In a bewildering way, graduate students, post-docs, and our upcoming research vanguard are often treated as if they didn’t have other options or as if their contribution was not absolutely essential to our collective flourishing.
Thankfully, the Canadian government convened a panel to offer recommendations on how to improve Canada’s research and innovation performance. I had the opportunity to chair the expert panel and we presented our report1 in 2023 to Ministre Champagne (ISED) and Ministre Duclos (at the time, Health). Hopefully, our recommendations will be implemented. The importance of the issue is clear, but what is often misunderstood is the degree of urgency of addressing it.
Take Canada and South Korea and ask yourself this question: Which country has made sure that it will have privileged access to talents and ideas? In 2000, Canada (all sectors) invested 1.86% of GDP in R&D (below OECD average), while Korea invested 2.13% of GDP in these essential activities. In the intervening twenty years, Canada declined further to a now measly 1.56%, while Korea shot up to almost top in the world with 4.93%. Korea is not alone in leveling up its ambitions. It is on a growth path adopted by the US, Israel, Japan, Switzerland, and Germany, and frankly many OECD countries. Canada is in the rare unenviable position of having a downward trend in investments in R&D. This story of weakness is mostly about weakening business R&D but the vulnerability remains and it is up to government to respond.
The widening gap translates into human capital. In 2000, Canada had 7.16 researchers per 1000 employed, above the OECD average (6.24), while Korea had 5.12 researchers per 1000. Twenty years later, Canada had 9.5 researchers per 1000 (roughly the 2020 OECD average, i.e. Canada has declined) while Korea had achieved a staggering 16.60 researchers per 1000 employed. In a twenty years period, Korea went from below OECD average to top in the world: this is a proof that public policy and collective ambitions matter. Canada has around 40M people, and Korea has close to 52M. We are in the same “league”, and yet Korea has close to 500 000 more researchers that contribute to its wellbeing and prosperity.
We rightfully derive a lot of pride with the good industrial news related to battery plants in Ontario and Québec. The attentive observer may have noticed that most of the announcements had a Korean company as the holder of the intellectual property being materialized in Canada. We should not be surprised. Twenty years ago, Korea was registering about 900 sets of patents (to Canada’s 612). In 2020, Korea had over 3200 sets of patents, while Canada is still at 660 patents. Korea has given recent signs that it may reduce its R&D and innovation efforts (a surprising orientation given its genuine economic successes). However, even with a possible reduction of its sail, it would still be ahead of almost all rich countries. Canada is astutely positioning itself in strategic advanced manufacturing on the production side, but are we doing enough to benefit from the true riches of the inventions underlying this industry? Ambitions about talent and ideas matter. In an uncertain and turbulent future, the strategy and resources necessary to realise those ambitions will determine the growth, prosperity and security of any and all countries.
This is a story about discovery, invention and innovation, but more importantly, it is a story about talent. We should be generating more and better research, more and grander discoveries, and more and richer innovations. To do so, we will need to train, attract and retain a greater number of researchers. Too often we highlight the result of research as ideas and discoveries, ground breaking understanding that changes our lives, while undervaluing the people that make it possible. In many respects, the researchers and innovators are more crucial to the growth of any society than any patent or discovery. It takes great minds to make discoveries, but it also takes great minds to marshal the discoveries of others effectively. We need a strong research capacity, i.e. talent and the tools they need, to produce innovations instead of merely consuming it. Korea’s trajectory is an example of this profound ambition for growth.
The contrast with Korea is striking and the 2000-2020 OECD is clear, but in many respects, the challenge will only get greater with other peer countries as well. The US with its 2022 US CHIPS and Science Act and IRA have induced the most massive R&D and innovation investments in decades, and Germany, UK, France, Japan, Israel, etc are trying to respond in kind. The stagnating levels of support to our graduate students over the last twenty years is one of the many symptoms of the ills that we already face. Our levels of support and our means of supporting research are not competitive. Our international peers are not waiting for us to get our act together, they are forging ahead and they will be happy to attract our best and brightest talents.
I have emphasized technological advancements and economic output, but the same story could be told with health and wellbeing examples or with better human and social understanding. Ultimately, this is a story about how a research and innovation is the cornerstone of national interest. Adaptation to climate change, pandemic preparedness, effective public policy, new means of supporting human flourishing: our ability to answer challenges and opportunities in a way that develops a prosper, just, enlightened, and dare I say happy society, will depend on having a privileged access to the best talents and the best ideas.
For any government to truly build the conditions of future wellbeing and prosperity, for any political promise to translate into better outcomes for all, for any possibility for us to build the future instead of enduring it, we need to make research and innovation and the people who make it happen a top national priority.