Vancouver: very liveable but not attractive to scientists?

The journal Nature has an intriguing article by Richard Van Noorden titled, Cities: Building the best cities for science; Which urban regions produce the best research — and can their success be replicated? It’s an attempt to synthesize research on what makes certain cities notable for scientific achievement and ways to duplicate that success elsewhere.

Given the discussion about Canada’s scientific achievements combined with our perceived lack of innovation, I was curious as to whether any Canadian cities (particularly Vancouver) might be mentioned and in what context. First, here’s the story behind the research on ‘scientific’ cities (from the article),

When the Øresund bridge connecting Copenhagen, Denmark, with Malmö, Sweden, opened in 2000, both sides had much to gain. Sweden would get a physical connection to the rest of mainland Europe; residents of Copenhagen would have access to cheaper homes close to the city; and economic cooperation would increase. But Christian Matthiessen, a geographer at the University of Copenhagen, saw another benefit — the joining of two burgeoning research areas. “Everyone was talking about the transport of goods and business connections,” he says, “and we argued that another benefit would be to establish links between researchers.”

Ten years later, those links seem to be strong. The bridge encouraged the establishment of the ‘Øresund region’, a loose confederation of nine universities, 165,000 students and 12,000 researchers. Co-authorship between Copenhagen and the southernmost province of Sweden has doubled, says Matthiessen. The collaborations have attracted multinational funds from the European Union. And the European Spallation Source, a €1.4-billion (US$2-billion) neutron facility, is on track to begin construction in Lund, Sweden, in 2013.

The region’s promoters claim that it is emerging as a research hub of northern Europe, aided in part by construction of the bridge. For Matthiessen, the bridge also inspired the start of a unique research project — to catalogue the growth and connections of geographical clusters of scientific productivity all over the world. [emphases mine]

It’s not hard to believe that other cities and regions are eager to emulate the Copenhagen/Malmö experience. Van Noorden’s article synthesizes Mathiesson’s research with research done for Nature by Elsevier to find some similar results, for example, Boston scores high while Beijing’s scientific output is increasing.

As for Vancouver,

Moreover, cities generally held to be the most ‘liveable’ in surveys — Vancouver and various urban centres in Canada and Australia — are often not associated with outstanding creativity [scientists are included as ‘creatives’ as defined by academics such as Richard Florida at the University of Toronto], says Peter Hall, a geographer at University College London. [emphases mine]

Van Noorden does not explore the question of why the most  ‘liveable’ cities “are often not associated with outstanding creativity.”

I’m reminded of the excitement over the recruitment of the Canada Excellence Research Chairs (my May 20, 2010 posting) and am suggesting that, like liveability, attracting world class researchers does not necessarily lead to the creative scientific and technological results hoped for so dearly.

As the article points there are many factor influencing why the rise and fall of ‘science’ cities,

Many factors are out of the hands of urban planners and local policy- makers, however, and more sophisticated spatial scientometrics studies into why and where scientists cluster geographically could help to explain the influence of these factors. The evolution of a metropolitan region such as Øresund [Copenhagen/Malmö] was shaped by national and international policies and economics. National policies, for example, have largely determined the evolution of science cities in France, Spain, Portugal, South Africa and Russia in the past few decades by pushing money, and by extension scientists, into smaller cities in need of a boost.

Researchers such as Michel Grossetti at the University of Toulouse (France), are attempting sophisticated analyses to get at the heart of why scientists do or do not cluster in certain regions as Van Noorden’s article notes.

I’m not sure what to make of this research simply because there’s been a lot of talk about how the internet and being online has obliterated geography (by working online, you can live wherever you choose as physical proximity is no longer necessary). This research suggests otherwise, i.e., physical or face to face contact is very important.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *