In Canada’s ever-changing science and technology landscape, the best strategy is to support excellence, wherever it is found.
By Tyler Irving
Howard Alper, OC, FRSC, HFCIC, is a professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Ottawa and chair of the Science, Technology, and Innovation Council (STIC), which advises the federal government. Over the past year, a series of reports from the STIC and other bodies such as the Expert Panel Review of Federal Support to Research and Development (known as the Jenkins Report after its author) have examined Canada’s performance in research and development, and recommended changes to Canada’s funding strategies.ACCN spoke with Alper to find out how Canada ranks internationally and what the proposed changes might mean for chemists.
ACCN When it comes to science, technology and innovation, how does Canada stack up against the rest of the world?
HAIf you look at the overall results, we stack up pretty well; we’re not at the top and we’re certainly far from the bottom. There are some areas where we perform very well, for instance, publicly funded research. Within the G8, Canada has ranked No. 1 since 2003 in terms of percentage of GDP devoted to support for colleges and universities. Then there are areas where we’re only satisfactory and areas with some deficiencies. The most pronounced, and that which has received a lot of media attention, is the low rate of research and development performed by industry. Compared to OECD countries, we are underperforming to a very significant degree, with the exception of certain industries. We really are not doing well in that regard and it needs attention by all sectors, not just by government, but by industry itself.
ACCN How are we doing in terms of chemistry?
HA In the State of the Nation 2010 – Canada’s Science, Technology and Innovation report, there’s no single sector called chemistry or physics. Rather, chemistry is interwoven into many sectors. There are industries that have substantive chemistry content: oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, materials science, automobile, aerospace, timber and pulp and paper. This last one, which is significantly associated with chemistry, is doing well. Pharmaceuticals have had challenges, not just in Canada but worldwide, principally driven by mergers and acquisitions. Materials science-based industries such as auto and aerospace are doing reasonably well.
The main point is that because chemistry permeates so much of our industry in Canada, you can’t make one comment on how chemistry is performing. Chemists need to educate and inform both the public and decision-makers, much more aggressively than they have, that chemistry is central to most industry sectors, and indeed society as a whole.
ACCN Does it matter whether research and development is done by academia, government, or private companies?
HA It does matter in that they have different roles and functions. The role of academia is to educate and train the next generation of leading chemists and chemical engineers. Research is absolutely key in providing students with the challenges and opportunities they need to be well-positioned and flexible enough to succeed. For industry, research is needed to bring the next set of products to commercial reality and that is key to the viability of the company. Government laboratories have many roles: for example, no one but government should be responsible for national standards and measurement. They address fundamental issues of relevance to the mandate of government departments, such as health and agriculture. But they are also there to help facilitate industry and research and development. An example in Canada is the wind tunnel laboratory at the National Research Council (NRC), which is used for testing by different companies as well as by government itself. All sectors have great value to society.
ACCN Canada seems to have a problem translating discovery into the marketplace; do you agree?
HA Even in the best countries, it’s only a very small proportion of discovery that becomes commercial. Many startup companies are created, most fail. Failure is not an embarrassment; instead it spurs creativity for new success. It requires seed money and venture capital. Finding those has been a major challenge in Canada in recent years and indeed worldwide. But it’s not just money, it’s making industry and academia aware of the pathway through to commercialization. This varies by sector; for example, the time and investments required to bring a new material for an automobile dashboard to market are different than those for a new antibiotic. We need to improve in terms of commercialization, but it is primarily industry’s role to do so.
ACCN The federal government does support some private sector research, but primarily through tax credits as opposed to direct funding. How does this compare to other countries?
HA Canada is No. 1 in the world in tax credits, but near the bottom in direct support. Let’s take the United States: a generation ago, 80 per cent of government support to industry was through tax credits and 20 per cent through direct support. The latest figures show almost the exact opposite. In one generation, the U.S. totally reversed itself and you see that for many countries, the ratio is about two direct funding dollars to every one dollar of indirect funding. Both are important, but what this pattern shows is that we need to move to a better equilibrium between direct and indirect support. This includes peer-reviewed grants to industry. At the same time, tax credits do have value, especially to small- and medium-sized enterprises. So yes, that’s a key issue that needs attention in the near future.
ACCN If more direct investments are made, how do we ensure they benefit all Canadians, not just the companies involved?
HA The key is to have systems and programs that are peer-adjudicated. These are not donations to industry, they have to be awarded by competition. The question is: is it excellent or not? If the quality is exceptionally high and the operation of the programs is done in a transparent manner, the public will accept direct support.
ACCN Given our unique geography, does Canada need to develop specialized research clusters, as recommended in the recent reports?
HA Clusters are not new. In Montreal, there are aerospace and pharmaceutical clusters with a strong chemistry component. The same is true of the oil and gas sector in Alberta, which involves chemistry and chemical engineering to a large degree. The oil sands are very important to our economic future as a nation, but there are still major challenges in the oil sands that need to be addressed by industry, academia and so on. One is the amount of water needed to produce a barrel of oil from the oil sands, another is the fact that there are many byproducts which we must convert to value-added or innocuous material. But the oil sands constitute a cluster and we need to use it to solve these problems.
The idea of having a critical mass in a particular area addressing major challenges is highly worthy of support. We should nurture very potent clusters led by industry, in partnership with universities and government where appropriate. Clusters by definition do not involve 50 to 100 entities, rather we’re talking about five to 15. It is not a wholesale enterprise, but a selective number of clusters, dealing with issues that are key to economic advancement and enhancing quality of life.
ACCN The Jenkins Report released last October recommended evolving the NRC institutes into clusters in this way. What do you think of this recommendation?
HA It would certainly be a significant break with the past. I really think NRC has been a gem from an historical perspective. I mentioned the aerospace lab but, for example, the Institute for Research in Construction is the role model globally in that sector. Then there’s the Steacie Institute for Molecular Sciences that does the most basic research, some of which feeds the work within the other institutes. At this point, government is now considering the various recommendations, so we’ll have to wait and see.
ACCN The case is often made that using government to direct innovation is ineffective, because we can’t predict where the next big breakthrough will come. What’s your take on that?
HA What you need is a balance, such that the majority investment is for the best research ideas, irrespective of area. At the same time, you need to create support for areas that are of high priority and which build on the assets within the country. Usually, about two-thirds of the funding is awarded regardless of area. But even within the one-third dedicated to priority areas, it means a spectrum of research from basic to applied research. Priority does not necessarily mean only development. It means areas that need accelerated advancement. Moreover, these change with time. One needs to reassess priorities every four to five years.
In 2002, I served on a group advising former prime minister John Howard in setting national research priorities for Australia. That exercise transformed Australia, which at the time was far behind Canada in many areas. The government invested in basic research across the board, as well as in the priority areas and it was of great benefit to all sectors. So when one judiciously deploys resources to support the best, irrespective of area, and at the same time sets aside funding to accelerate advancement in certain areas of high priority to the country, one benefits enormously.
ACCN What is the role of the Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC) in these developments?
HA The CIC is an excellent organization that has within it members from industry, academia and government. It has a key role to play in educating and informing these sectors about where the opportunities lie, where the needs are and how we can do better. It also has a role to play in terms of linking to schools. Chemistry is something to nurture in the high school system and even earlier. One way to do this is through inquiry-based science education: learning concepts by doing experiments rather than just by memory. This is now practiced in a majority of countries in the world and is a highly successful pedagogical method to engage young people.
Finally, it could benefit the chemical community by reaching out to other sectors where there is a desire for partnership, for example, the biological societies, physics and engineering.
ACCN Given our changing science and technology landscape, what advice do you have for students entering the workforce or academia?
HA I’ve had more than 200 co-workers in my laboratory over the past 30 years and I’ve always given them the same advice: choose the projects and research areas that are most appealing to you. Do the best you can do and if you succeed, you will end up somewhere satisfying. You may change jobs, but if you are satisfied in your career and always aim for the highest, you can achieve more than you ever dreamt you could do.
Want to share your thoughts on this article? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org