Government R&D investments reversing brain drain, says Carty

Canada’s “brain-drain” to the U.S. – the bane of the IT boom days – may soon be a thing of the past, thanks to significant government and industry investment in science and technology (S&T).

These investments – made over the past seven years – are helping Canada attract and retain the best talent, and paying out other rich dividends, according to Arthur Carty, National Science Advisor to the Prime Minister.

Carty delivered this buoyant message yesterday during his keynote at the Centre for Advanced Studies Conference (CASCON) hosted by IBM Canada Ltd. in Markham, Ont.

Around 1,800 people are participating in this year’s CASCON, including representatives from research institutes, government, private sector and academia. (More than 60 universities are represented, according to Kelly Lyons, head of IBM’s Toronto Centre for Adavanced Studies). In addition to the Canadians, participants at the four-day conference include delegates from Hungary, Singapore, Russia, China and India.

Carty spoke on a range of topics – his own role and mandate, the dire need for commercializing technology research, strategies for government involvement in R&D, public-private sector alliances, and interdisciplinary collaboration in areas such as nanotechnology.

Emphasizing the federal government’s commitment to technology research, Carty noted that $13 billion in new federal S&T funds had been injected into the Canadian R&D system over the past seven years – with universities as the chief beneficiaries.

This capital infusion, he said, has had a powerful impact on the university research environment “to a point where R&D spending in Canadian universities is the highest, per capita, among all the G8 countries.” Government funds, he said, are supporting multiple projects, including the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and 2,000 Canada Research chairs. (A quarter of the chairs funded so far have gone to non-Canadians and around half to returning Canadians).

“Federal research councils have more than doubled in this (seven year) period,” said Carty. “Networks and centres of excellence have multiplied, and collectively there’s been a 144 per cent growth in higher education investments.” And the results, he said, are for all to see. “Twenty per cent of the junior Canada Research Chairs have been filled by returning Canadians, who have been attracted back – not just by the CRC program – but by the stimulating R&D environment here.”

Despite these undeniable improvements, he said, much needs to be done to harvest the economic benefits of technology and science, and commercialize the results of research. “If we fail to do this, it could prejudice future investments.” Putting together a long-term plan that balances the need to support excellence in S&T with benefits to society and the economy is a key priority of his office, he said.

Carty said the creation of a National Science Advisor post – for the very first time in Canada – is a clear indication of the federal government’s commitment to R&D.

But he emphasized that he has a lot to accomplish with limited resources. “My counterpart in the U.K. David King has 130 people in his office. I started off with no one but now have a staff of seven.”

Bottomline: Carty’s picking his priorities very carefully.

One of these, he said, is developing mechanisms to invigorate government science and technology and build horizontal partnerships within government, and between the public and private sectors.

He said coordination and collaboration between federal and provincial R&D initiatives is sadly lacking in some areas – and almost non-existent in others. “Canada has some real strengths, in areas like nanotechnology. But we lack a well coordinated government strategy to move forward in these areas.”

By contrast, Carty said, countries like the U.S. and France “really have their act together. They coordinate all of the agencies involved, share the information and the funding.”

Such collaboration, he said, is vital if the goal of commercializing S&T is to be achieved. “Commercialization isn’t simple. It involves much more than technological innovation or securing venture capital. It also requires a knowledge of the marketplace and the customer.”

An important aspect of public-private sector collaboration, he said, is federal funding of corporate R&D efforts. “Over the past decade federal investment in industrial innovation has been pretty flat – increasing at a rate of just 10 per cent over 10 years.”

The Science Advisor lauded the R&D initiatives and investments of entrepreneurs such as Mike Lazaridis, president and co-CEO of Waterloo, Ont.-based Research in Motion. He noted that Lazaridis and two of his colleagues (Doug Fregin and Jim Balsillie) had invested $120 million in the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo – while Lazaridis himself put another $33 million into the Institute of Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo.

These investments, he said, will ensure Canada makes huge strides in quantum computing – an area where we have a significant portion of the world’s experts.

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