Looking Ahead

Looking Ahead

Assessing the future of science and technology in Canada


Photo: Canada Science & Technology Museum.


Although Canada itself remains a relatively young nation, its contribution to humanity in terms of science and technology has been tremendous. In 1908, Lord Ernest Rutherford discovered the concept of radioactive half-life at McGill University. In 1921, Sir Frederick Banting and his assistant Dr. Charles Best discovered and isolated insulin at the University of Toronto. In 1963, Mr. Ernest McCulloch and Mr. James Till discovered the existence of stem cells, and finally in the early 1980s, the Input Research Group at the University of Toronto pioneered multi-touch technology. With only a population of 35 million, Canada has produced 25 Noble Laureates, ranked ninth in the world.

Not only that, but according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), created by 15-year-old high school students by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2015, Canadian students ranked 10th around the world in terms of mathematic literacy, and 7th around the world in terms of science literacy. This is really good considering that USA ranked 40th in terms of mathematic literacy and 25th in terms of science literacy, while UK ranked 27th in terms of mathematic literacy and 15th in terms of science literacy. In fact, Canadian high school students performed far better than most of the non-Asian developed countries in terms of science and mathematics.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that the high school students in Canada have achieved such a good result in science and mathematics, Canada is starting to lose its competitive edge to other countries (especially those in Asia) at the university level and beyond. This is reflected in the dropping of Canadian Universities in different university ranking systems. For example, in the 2018 Times Higher Education Ranking, University of Toronto ranked at 22nd place, down by 2 places when compared to 2015, when University of Toronto was ranked 20th place in the world. That goes the same for University of British Columbia (UBC). In the 2018 Times Higher Education Ranking, UBC was ranked 34th place in the world, done by 2 places when compared to 2015, when it was ranked 32th place.

On the other hand, Asian universities are catching up fast. For example, in the 2015 Times Higher Education Ranking, the National University of Singapore was ranked 25th, Peking University was ranked 48th and the University of Hong Kong was ranked 43th. Then in the 2018 Times Higher Education ranking, the National University of Singapore increased to 22nd place (the same as U of T), Peking University has jumped to 27th place and University of Hong Kong has increased to 40th place.

There are many reasons behind this increase in the university rankings of Asian universities, but the most important one is that their governments want to invest a huge amount of money and resources to develop scientific research and development (R&D) in their universities. For example, in 2015, the government of Singapore announced that it would raise its science and technology research budget to 19 billion Singapore dollars (approximately 18 billion Canadian dollars) over the next 5 years in order to boost its competitiveness in science and technology. Also in 2015, China announced that it would increase its R&D budget to 2.5% of its GDP by 2020. OECD had already predicted that China will overtake USA in terms of R&D expenditure by 2019. Thus, in the future, we can see even fiercer competition from Asian countries in science and technological innovations.

Yet, while Asian countries such as China and Singapore are trying their best to catch up in science and technology, Canada is slowing down. In fact according to a report released by the Science, Technology and Innovation Council in 2015, from 2007 to 2014, Canada’s overall investment in business R&D dropped by over $1 billion, and Canada’s ranking in expenditure on R&D has fallen from 18th place around the world in 2006 to 26th place in the world in 2013. During April of this year, thousands of Canadian scientists and common people marched in 19 locations across Canada to voice their concern about the cut in scientific funding. This serves as a warning call to Ottawa because if the government does not do anything about it then Canada, the country that had once produced 25 Noble Laureates, will lag behind in the innovation race of the 21st century.