Stephen Harper and the knowledge economy: perfect strangers

Paul Wells on the bad news in the Science, Technology and Innovation Council’s latest report

This story will get buried by all the other news today. That’s understandable, but I wish it weren’t so. It’s about a long-term government failure.

In 2007 Maxime Bernier created the Science, Technology and Innovation Council to measure Canada’s science and technology performance against that of comparable countries around the world. It’s produced reports every two years. The latest was released this morning while most of us were caught up in some other hilarity on the Hill.

The STIC council, as it’s called, is a big-name panel of advisors both inside government and outside. Its current membership includes the deputy ministers of Industry, Trade and Health; the presidents of Western, Alberta and McGill Universities; and a brochette of CEOs, principally from the energy sector.

Its third biennial report is devastating. Well, maybe I shouldn’t be throwing a word like that around in a week like this one, but it’s full of bad news anyway. Here’s some jargon, which I’ll translate:

State of the Nation 2012 shows that Canada’s gross domestic expenditures on R&D (GERD) declined from their peak in 2008 and, when measured in relation to gross domestic product (GDP), since 2001. In contrast, the GERD and GERD intensity of most other countries have been increasing. Canada’s declining GERD intensity has pushed its rank down from 16th position in 2006 to 17th in 2008 and to 23rd in 2011 (among 41 economies).

That means that by the broadest measure of expenditure on research and development, Canada has fallen from 16th out of 41 comparable countries in the year Stephen Harper became prime minister, to 23rd in 2011. 

GERD is a mix of HERD and BERD. Sorry: total research spending is a mix of R&D spending in the higher-education sector, and in the business sector. In 2007, the Harper government’s Science and Technology Strategy called “the need to encourage greater private-sector S&T investment” a “national priority.” And how does this government do on national priorities, given half a decade? “In international rankings related to business innovation, Canada continues to place in the middle of the pack on most measures and, on some indicators, Canada’s rank has declined,” the report says. “BERD intensity (i.e., BERD as a percentage of GDP) has been in almost continuous decline for the past decade. Canada’s rank among comparator countries on BERD-to- GDP fell to 25th in 2011 (of 41 economies).”

Investment in “information and communication technology” — computers, networking and phone tech — has lagged in Canada behind U.S. levels throughout the past decade, so that now the gap of total ICT stock between our country and our most important neighbour is much greater than when the Harper government came to power.

The good news is that on pure science, Canada continues to perform better than most other countries. “With a share of only 0.5 percent of global population, Canada accounted for 4.4 percent of the world’s natural sciences and engineering publications in 2010. This positions Canada eighth after countries with significantly larger populations: the U.S., China, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, France and Italy.”

The bad news is that Canada is letting its science advantage fritter away, as if that could somehow help its private-sector R&D gap close. In 2007 Canada continued to rank first among G7 countries  in HERD, or R&D expenditure in the higher-education sector. But as I have argued elsewhere, it’s increasingly useful to consider the G7 as an international losers’ club. It’s the U.S., Japan and Old Europe. When you throw Canada into the larger pool of 41 countries STIC looks at — countries with a bit of mojo, like Brazil, India, China, Poland, Israel and Sweden — Canada has fallen from third in 2006, to 4th in 2008 — to 9th in 2011. “With their significant investments in research and higher education,” this panel writes, “other countries are catching up and overtaking Canada.”

Between 2006 and 2010, the annual number of science PhD graduates in Canada grew by nearly half — a lagging reflection, I suspect, of the formidable growth in science capacity in Canada between 1997 and 2002. A generation of students came of age at a time when Canada was developing an international reputation as a relative science oasis. They had their university careers and came onto the job market. But it’s a shaky market now. This larger cohort of scientists is searching for stagnant or declining grant budgets. Success rates for research grant applications are falling. So Canada has more scientists than ever, and each is able to do less science than she would have been able to do a decade ago.

It’s a peculiar situation. The government has known, since its first year in office, that the private sector is not doing enough applied research. Its response has been to put the brakes on pure research in universities. The result has been that the weakness has continued to aggravate, while the strength has been put in danger. At Davos more than a year ago, Harper said his government would “continue to make the key investments in science and technology necessary to sustain a modern competitive economy.” It’s not clear what he meant by “continue.” It is true that recent changes at the National Research Council are designed to bolster, or accompany, or synergize with, or somehow prop up private-sector applied research. I can only wish the NRC luck. If it manages to push Canada up 7 spots in international rankings of research intensity, the country will be back where it was, compared to peer countries, on the day Stephen Harper became prime minister.

The cheaper thing the government could do is to shut down the STIC council. It’ll stop producing meddlesome reports like this.

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