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Setting Priorities For Research In Canada

Adobe Acrobat Versions (PDF)
Complete Paper, 405 Kb
Government Survey, 44 Kb
Industry Survey, 1.12 Mb
University Survey, 45 Kb

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The Partnership Group for Science and Engineering (PAGSE) is a consortium of leading firms and associations involved in research and development (R & D). PAGSE has been active in addressing issues relating to the social and economic impacts of R & D in Canada. PAGSE established the Committee to Advance Research (CAR) in collaboration with industry.

PAGSE/CAR was concerned that:

Canada seems to make little effort to identify and invest in areas of science and technology (S & T) that are of national importance for future job creation and wealth generation; and

Funding for research appears to be insufficient to sustain Canada’s competitiveness in the world economy.
PAGSE and CAR, decided to launch an investigation into the way that research priorities are set, to see if the concerns are justified and, if so, what could be done about them.

The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and the National Research Council (NRC) provided financial support to CAR in this initiative.

SECOR was given a mandate to carry out the investigation under the direction of CAR (PAGSE).

Work began in the summer of 1999. Surveys were used to collect information on R & D priorities. Three groups were investigated:

50 leading innovative firms;


12 leading research universities;


All federal government departments involved in significant R & D programs.
The survey results showed that relatively few of the organizations contacted had a systematic approach to setting research priorities. The fit between the research priorities of the different groups was weak. Moreover, few mechanisms for collaboratively establishing priorities were available.

To better understand these problems, PAGSE:

Carried out an analysis of technology foresight activities in other countries; and


Analyzed economic indicators to assess the fit between research priorities and the contributions to GDP of the related industrial sectors.
Main Findings

Most organizations were simply not interested in how priorities ought to be established nationally. This message came through quite clearly from the surveys and related interviews. Moreover, Canada’s capacity to define strategic research priorities based on concrete information was found to be very limited.

The data collected in this study demonstrated a poor fit between the research priorities of universities and those of firms. However, firms and universities shared similar views on the role of university research. Firms were not interested in having universities work on research problems of immediate concern to them. They wanted universities to conduct long-range research aimed at developing generic technologies and new methods.

Canadian universities place great emphasis on human molecular biology. The practical impact of much of this research is to develop new pharmaceutical products for the treatment of disease. Apart from a number of small and medium- size entrepreneurial firms, Canada has a pharmaceutical industry that is generally weak in innovation, although there are some genuine accomplishments in this regard. This frustrates the efforts of university researchers. They identified lack of industry receptor capacity and investment in R & D as factors that limit the applicability of their research.

University research in the life sciences is focused on research related to the pharmaceutical industry. This industry contributes 0.5% of GDP. By contrast, little research is carried out on the improvement of medical treatment outcomes, epidemiology and best practices, even though the delivery of health care constitutes 7% of GDP. With provincial medical insurance, Canada is ideally positioned to ”mine” health databases and to investigate practices that would help to optimize service delivery. The impacts of such work could be huge, since even small improvements translate into large financial and social effects.

The activities of the top 100 industrial R & D players are strongly oriented toward information and communications technologies, followed by health and aerospace. For example, the Canadian R & D expenditures of Nortel Networks exceed those of all Canadian pharmaceutical firms combined. The R & D interests of Canadian firms are poorly reflected by research activities at universities.

Although arguments in favour of the freedom of academic research would seem to resist any priority setting at universities, they overlook the fact that broad priorities are now set with little public debate. The basic split between the funding of university research in social sciences, life sciences and physical sciences is determined by government’s budgetary allocations to the three major Granting Councils. The decisions are not strongly supported by the analysis of technology trends or national needs, since such investigations have received minimal attention In Canada.

Government departments cite support of industry as a major research goal. Research in support of regulatory activities is given a lower priority. Health Canada, for example, which has a major regulatory mandate, has a relatively low research budget.

A good deal of activity across departments is oriented towards sustainable development. Little effort, however, has historically been made to coordinate sustainable development activities and to link them to university research. If Canada is to contribute important public goods for international consumption this would be an area where the nation could excel. The 2000 federal Budget takes an important step in addressing these concerns by providing additional funds for environmental technologies and practices, as well as the regulation of biotechnology.

Infrastructure Needs

The main infrastructure needs identified in this work were for “suites” of resources to support research projects. These included, for example:

Additional laboratory space and analytical equipment; and


Advanced computing equipment.
Respondents noted with some relief that universities have received increased funds for research and major facilities including those of national scope. However, this funding has not been matched by proportional increases in overhead, which has created enormous financial stress. Overall, the results suggest that the Canada Foundation for Innovation might want to allocate resources for both:

Cohesive projects that aggregate a number of smaller investments; and


The support of major facilities.
Technology Foresight In Canada

Countries such as Japan, US, Germany and the UK are leaders in technology foresight initiatives. All of these countries have well-organized teams leading foresight initiatives. The level of interest in future research directions is high. All stakeholders (industry, government and academia) are heavily involved in the process.

Canada’s initiatives in this area were found to be modest compared to those of other western industrialized nations. To date, only four Canadian sectors have complete technology “road maps”. Canada is now attempting to catch up. Unlike other countries, Canada’s efforts have been primarily at the industrial sector level. Little effort has yet been made to create a national strategy by integrating the results from sector road maps.

Recommendations

Based on the findings of this work, PAGSE through CAR recommends that:

Government establish a foresight panel to identify the emerging technologies required for the country’s future socio-economic needs and international competitiveness. Reviewing the directions of publicly funded research should be part of this activity. The panel should inform the political process of priority setting. It should provide recommendations to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

Industry Canada support the work of the foresight panel by:


Improving its internal capability in technology analysis and foresight;


Undertaking technology foresight investigations for key industrial sectors using mechanisms that involve universities, firms and government laboratories; and


Benchmarking Canadian analyses against those of other countries such as the US, Japan and the UK.


Government expand the support of research in sustainable development, advanced computer and information technologies for modeling and simulation, and medical treatment outcomes. Work carried out in each of these fields by industry, universities and government should be better coordinated to improve impacts.