On Campus

Why do Canadian scholars win so few awards?

At the top levels of international science research, Canada punches way below its weight, says U of T pres

David Naylor delivered a speech yesterday at the Economic Club of Toronto, a kind of state of the union on higher education: where we are, where he believes we should be going.

If we look at the lay of the land, Canada’s level of higher education enrollment is the highest in the world. That’s in part driven by high levels of college and (in Quebec) CEGEP enrollment; if we take them out of the mix, we move a bit down in the league tables, but we still have a relatively high percentage of our population enrolled in university. If we consider only graduate education, and the number of PhDs our country turns out, we lag slightly behind many other OECD countries. The same goes for our percentage of university graduates with a science or engineering education.

But when we measure the very pinnacle of graduate education in science — not volume of total research, but the amount of award-winning, world-beating research — Canada is not above average. Canada is not average or even a bit below average. We’re way below the countries we consider our peers. Naylor quoted from this recent federal government report, which points out that:

In terms of distinguished science awards, however, Canada ranks lower (12th in the world, tied with Israel). During the period of 1941 to 2008, Canada has received 19 awards in science, in contrast with other countries such as the U.S. (1403), U.K. (222), France (91), Germany (75) and Australia (42). Canada last received a Nobel Prize in science in 1994, when Bertram Brockhouse won the Nobel Prize in Physics for the development of neutron spectroscopy. In 2008, Anthony Pawson, a professor of medical genetics and microbiology at the University of Toronto, was awarded a Kyoto Prize in the basic sciences category for his work on signal transduction, or how cells use chemical signals to regulate one another’s behaviour.

The global list of distinguished awards, including distinguished science awards, is compiled by this organization.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.