A federal review of how Canada funds business-focused research and development is being met with mixed reactions.
While the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada praised the “composition and mandate” of the review panel, the Canadian Association of University Teachers said they’re not expecting much.
“We’ve had many [reviews] over the past 10, 15, 20 years,” said David Robinson CAUT’s associate executive director.
While the review, announced Oct. 14, will primarily look at support for private sector research, according to a press release it will also look at “programs that support business-focused [research and development] through federal granting councils and other departments and agencies, including research at universities and colleges.”
But the review won’t be looking at “funding for basic research conducted in higher-education institutions that is not directly intended to foster business [research and development],” according to an email from Industry Canada.
The review will be headed by Thomas Jenkins, executive chairman of the software company Open Text. Three of the five other members of the committee come from universities.
“Canadian business spends less per capita on research and development, innovation and commercialization than most other industrialized countries, despite the Government of Canada investing more than $7 billion annually to encourage business [research and development],” said Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Minister of Veteran Affairs and Minister of State Agriculture, in a press release announcing the review.
But Robinson said the review, like previous reviews, has a restricted mandate.
“One of the reasons we have a poor research and development sector is the nature of Canada’s economy,” he said. According to Robinson, because Canada has a resource based economy and a large number of branch, rather than head, offices, businesses are less like likely to conduct research and development in Canada.
The review was announced one day after a group calling itself the Coalition for Action on Innovation in Canada released a report criticizing the way Canada supports research.
That group, lead by former Liberal member of parliament John Manley and Paul Lucas, president and CEO of pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline Canada, is calling for stronger ties between business and educational institutions when it comes to research. According to their report, “business and academia should consider a pilot program that would identify up to 25 partnerships that would be nurtured through access to top coaches and other support.”
But Robinson criticized the “narrow focus on commercialization.” He said that this is part of an “overall pattern of seeing universities as appendages of industry, which they are definitely not. This is a recipe for disaster.”
According to Robinson the biggest innovations often come as a result of general research and a lot of the benefits from research aren’t strictly commercial.
The coalition’s report also calls for a “national learning and innovation initiative,” which they hope would increase high school graduation rates to 90 per cent; increase “post-secondary enrolment in science, engineering and business education programs” and increase “per capita graduation rates at the Master’s and Ph.D. levels to match or exceed those in the United States.”
They are also calling for increased recruitment of international students and “making it easier for foreign students to obtain visas, work permits and health care while studying in Canada.”
The federal government plans to spend $11.7 billion on science and technology this year, according to a Statistics Canada report released on Oct. 13. Of this $7.4 billion is earmarked for research and development. While the majority of these funds will go to federal agencies, $3 billion will go to post secondary institutions.
According to Statistics Canada federal spending on science and technology is set to increase by more than 10 per cent since 2008 &- 2009.
But Robinson said that recent federal investments in research and development, as part of the economic action plan, have focused on infrastructure. He said that overall funding to the federal granting agencies – who provide the majority of post-secondary research funding – has actually been dropping. “You also need to fund the conduct of research,” he said.
Robinson said he’d like to see scientists setting research priorities, not government officials, and called for a broader focus in research funding, with more funding for things like looking into the source of child poverty and health research that looks at causes not just developing treatments.
According to Statistics Canada, around three-quarters of federal funds for science and technology will go to what the government describes as “natural science and engineering” with the other quarter going to “social sciences and humanities.”