Tag Archives: Paul Wells

Science research spending and innovation in Europe and reflections on the Canadian situation

I thought I’d pull together some information about science funding and innovation for closer examination. First, in early July 2011 the European Union announced plans for a huge spending increase, approximately 45%, for science. Their current programme, the Seventh Framework Programme (US$79B budget) is coming to an end in 2013 and the next iteration will be called, Horizon 2020 (proposed US$114B budget).  Here’s more from Kit Eaton’s July 6, 2011 article on Fast Company,

The proposal still awaits approval by the E.U.’s parliament and member states, but just getting this far is a milestone. The next phase is to forge spending into the next generation of the E.U.’s Framework Programme, which is its main research spending entity, to produce a plan called Horizon 2020. The spending shift has been championed by E.U. research commissioner Márie Geoghan-Quinn, and means that the share of the E.U. budget portioned out for scientific research will eventually double from its 4.5% figure in 2007 to 9% in 2020.

How will Europe pay for it? This is actually the biggest trick being pulled off: More than €4.5 billion would be transferred from the E.U.’s farm subsidies program, the Common Agricultural Policy. This is the enormous pile of cash paid by E.U. authorities to farmers each year to keep them in business, to keep food products rolling off the production line, and to keep fields fallow–as well as to diversify their businesses.

Nature journal also covered the news in a July 5, 2011 article by Colin Macilwane,

Other research advocates say that the proposal — although falling short of the major realignment of funding priorities they had been hoping for — was as good as could be expected in the circumstances. “Given the times we’re in, we couldn’t realistically have hoped for much more,” says Dieter Imboden, president of Eurohorcs, the body representing Europe’s national research agencies.

Geoghegan-Quinn told Nature that the proposal was “a big vote of confidence in science” but also called on researchers to push to get the proposal implemented — especially in their home countries. “The farmers will be out there lobbying, and scientists and researchers need to do the same,” she says.

While the European Union wrangles over a budget that could double their investment in science research, Canadians evince, at best, a mild interest in science research.

The latest Science, Technology and Innovation Council report, State of the Nation 2010: Canada’s Science, Technology and Innovation System, was released in June 2011 and has, so far, occasioned little interest despite an article in the Globe & Mail and a Maclean’s blog posting by Paul Wells. Hopefully,  The Black Hole Blog, where Beth Swan and David Kent are writing a series about the report, will be able to stimulate some discussion.

From Beth’s July 12, 2011 posting,

The report – at least the section I’m talking about today – is based on data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment and Statistics Canada. Some of the interesting points include:

  • 15-year-old Canadians rank in the top 10 of OECD countries for math and science in 20091.
  • 80% of 15-19 year-old Canadians are pursuing a formal education, which is lower than the OECD average
  • But Canada ranks 1st in OECD countries for adults (ages 25–64 years) in terms of the percentage of the population with a post-secondary education (49%)
  • The numbers of Canadian students in science and engineering at the undergraduate level increased (18% increase in the number of science undergraduate degrees, 9% increase in the number of engineering undergraduate degrees) in 2008 compared to 2005

This all begs the question, though, of what those science-based graduates do once they graduate. It’s something that we’ve talked about a fair bit here on the Black Hole and the STIC report gives us some unhappy data on it. Canada had higher unemployment rates for science-based PhDs (~3-4%) compared to other OECD countries (e.g., in the US, it’s about ~1-1.5%).  Specifically, in 2006 Canada had the highest rate of unemployment for the medical sciences -3%- and engineering -4%- and the third highest rate of unemployment for the natural sciences -3%- among the OECD countries: the data are from 2006.

David, in his July 16, 2011 posting, focuses on direct and indirect Canadian federal government Research & Development (R&D) spending,

It appears from a whole host of statistics, reports, etc – that Canada lags in innovation, but what is the government’s role in helping to nurture its advancement.  Is it simply to create fertile ground for “the market” to do its work?  or is it a more interventionist style of determining what sorts of projects the country needs and investing as such?  Perhaps it involves altering the way we train and inspire our young people?

Beth then comments on Canadian business R&D investment, which has always been a low priority according to the material I’ve read, in her July 25, 2011 posting on ,

Taken together, this shows a rather unfavourable trend in Canadian businesses not investing in research & development – i.e, not contributing to innovation. We know from Dave’s last posting that Canada is not very good at contributing direct funds to research and my first posting in this series illustrated that while Canada is pretty good at getting PhDs trained, we are not so good at having jobs for those PhDs once they are done their schooling.

The latest July 27, 2011 posting from David asks the age old question, Why does Canada lag in R&D spending?

Many reports have been written over the past 30 years about Canada and its R&D spending, and they clamour one after the other about Canada’s relative lack of investment into R&D.  We’ve been through periods of deep cutbacks and periods of very strong growth, yet one thing remains remarkably consistent – Canada underspends on R&D relative to other countries.

The waters around such questions are extremely murky and tangible outcomes are tough to identify and quantify when so many factors are at play.  What does seem reasonable though is to ask where this investment gap is filled from in other countries that currently outstrip Canada’s spending – is it public money, private money, foreign money, or domestic money?  Hopefully these questions are being asked and answered before we set forth on another 30 year path of poor relative investment.

As I stated in my submission to the federal government’s R&D review panel and noted in my March 15, 2011 posting about the ‘Innovation’ consultation, I think we need to approach the issues in more imaginative ways.

University of Alberta, research money, nanotechnology, and those recent Chairs of Excellence

While I’m well aware of their work in nanotechnology research, I did not realize that the University of Alberta was becoming “one of Canada’s powerhouse  research centres.” Here’s more from the Globe & Mail article by Josh Wingrove,

It started last week, with Industry Minister Tony Clement flying in, making a joke about football, announcing $500,000 in funding for nanotechnology research, and promptly leaving. [mentioned in my Aug. 17, 2010 posting]

A week later, a prestigious gathering of 50 delegates from leading Chinese and Canadian research institutions arrived, as well as an announcement Thursday of $200-million in federal research money.

It would be a busy two weeks for any school. But the delegates didn’t attend McGill University, the University of Toronto or the University of British Columbia, typically regarded as Canada’s top-ranked institutions.

Instead, they came to Edmonton’s University of Alberta, which has quickly become one of Canada’s powerhouse research centres. The U of A ranks second in total research funding, behind only U of T and up from fifth in 2006. This year, the U of A will spend $514-million on research, more than double its total from a decade ago.

The university has decided to spend more on research at a time when other departments on campus are experiencing budget cutbacks.

“From a societal point of view of course, research is increasingly conducted as applied research. It’s meant to solve problems,” she [Britta Baron, vice-provost] said. “The more selfish answer from the point of view of the individual university is your prestige, your ranking, depends mostly on the quality of your research. If you want to push yourself up, you need to invest in your research.”

The U of A is home to four of the nation’s 19 Canada Excellence Chairs announced three months ago, more than any other university. [emphasis mine]

I did post about the Canada Excellence Chairs May 20, 2010 when they were first announced and was recently alerted (thanks to Joel Burford of Alberta Innovates Technology Futures) to a youtube interview with one of the new U of A Canada Excellence Chairs, Thomas Thundat. His area of interest is  oil sands molecular engineering,

I’m not really sure what to make of all this other than the fact that competition amongst the universities in Canada seems to be heating up. I recall there was some outcry after a 2009 article by Paul Wells for MacLean’s where representatives from the ‘big five’ Canadian universities claimed they should get the lion’s share of funding for science research and postgraduates while Canada’s other universities should focus on undergraduate education. About 10 days later the other universities replied in an article by Cathy Gulli for MacLean’s. (Rob Annan at Don’t leave Canada behind commented on the controversy here and here.)

I would imagine these latest developments are a matter of some satisfaction for the folks at the U of A. It’ll be interesting to see how this all shakes out especially if there should be a federal election. Let’s not forget that Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper is from Alberta.

Waldo and robot hands circa. 2009; innovation in Canada, John Manley, and the university community

Shades of Robert Heinlein’s 1943 short story, Waldo, and Richard Feynman’s 1959 talk, There’s plenty of room at the bottom, to the American Physical Society!  Both of these texts feature the development of ‘smaller and smaller robotic hands to manipulate matter at the atomic and molecular levels’ and both of these have been cited as the birth of nanotechnology. The NanoHand Project (funded by the European Union) has developed microrobots designed to handle carbon nanotubes, according to the media release on Nanowerk News.  From the media release,

The robots, about two centimetres in size, work inside a scanning electron microscope where their activities can be followed by an observer. “The whole set-up is integrated into the vacuum chamber of the microscope,” [Volkmar] Eichhorn [of the University of Oldenberg] explains. “There is a glass plate where these mobile microrobots can walk around.”

Each robot has a ‘microgripper’ that can make precise and delicate movements. It works on an electrothermal principle to open and close the jaws, much like a pair of tweezers. The jaws open to about 2 micrometres and can pick up objects less than 100 nanometres in size. “[It is] really able to grip micro or even nano objects,”

Eichhorn says. “We have handled objects down to tens of nanometres.”

If you go to Nanowerk News, you will be able to see a video of the microrobots in action or you can go to the NanoHand site here for more information.

“I don’t think you could say that innovation is deeply in the DNA of our Canadian business enterprises,” [John Manley] said, “We have built prosperity, up to and including this decade, on a fairly basic paradigm: we are rich in natural resources.” (from the article, Innovation isn’t in Canada’s DNA by Paul Wells in MacLean’s magazine here.) I agree more closely with Manley’s quote than I do with the article’s headline writer who seems to be implying that Canadians are not genetically disposed to innovation. Manley very specifically fingers business enterprises and not people. (I briefly mentioned the article in my July 31, 2009 posting in the context of a discussion[also in MacLean’s] by the big 5 Canadian universities about funding and innovation.)