Canada losing ground in race for top research talent

October 18, 2023
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This op-ed was published in The Hill Times on October 16, 2023.

Reposted with permission from The Hill Times.

By Philip Landon, interim president and CEO of Universities Canada

Canada is losing ground in our ability to compete for the top research talent we need. Building up our domestic research capacity is not only necessary to ensure we don’t lose out on new discoveries, but also to train the next generation of highly qualified talent.  

According to RBC, by 2030, roughly 13 per cent of all new jobs created in Canada will require enhanced skillsets necessary to meet our net-zero goals. This is in addition to the overall increased demand for highly skilled talent we will see across industries as the nature and scale of the global economy becomes more complex and knowledge-driven. 

The key to delivering a high-quality university education requires skilled faculty and robust opportunities for advanced research training. For generations, Canada’s university system has been a national asset, attracting the brightest minds from around the world to live, work, conduct their research, and train the next generation of talent in Canada. But now, that talent pool is drying up. While we rightly boast of our highly educated population, that success is mostly attributable to the high number of students with short-cycle tertiary degrees (26 per cent) and bachelor’s degrees (24 per cent).   

Put simply, the high-demand fields of the future need the full spectrum of talent, including people with advanced graduate research training. But only 11 per cent of Canada’s population has completed a master’s or doctoral degree, well below the OECD average. That’s a real problem if we want to ensure we have a pipeline of talent for Canadian industry, not only in the trades, but also in engineering, science, clean technology, business, management, law, social services, and more. 

While it is a problem, it’s no real surprise that too few Canadians are pursuing graduate research training. Despite the benefits that accrue, it has never been a more difficult financial proposition for most students. As the Government of Canada’s own Advisory Panel on the Federal Research Support System (the Bouchard report) concluded, years of under-investment and neglect of our research ecosystem have led to a breaking point where we risk a significant brain drain of young scientists and researchers to countries that offer better support.    

We are falling behind as a country at a time when we desperately need to compete and move forward.  

For more than 20 years, Canada’s talent programs for graduate students and post-doctoral fellowships have stagnated, losing more than 50 per cent of their real value, and falling behind comparable programs in peer countries. 

Basic research funding streams through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) are also on the decline.  

CIHR’s investigator-initiated funding stream will fund $829-million in health research in 2025, $20-million less than current expenditures. At NSERC, the decline is even steeper. The flagship Discovery Grants will fund $745-million in basic scientific research in 2025—a $100-million decline from current levels. This means fewer major research endeavours will receive federal funding in 2025 than this year. This decline makes an already bad situation even worse. As it stands, a Discovery Grant is often not enough to provide competitive stipends to research assistants or post-doctoral fellows, making Canadian-funded researchers less competitive for research positions in labs or on major projects than those in Europe or the United States. 

On top of the funding cliff that Canada’s research ecosystem is facing, inflation has eaten away at the value of research dollars. 

Canada has taken its research talent for granted for too long. Now, as the government spends tens of billions of dollars to attract investment across value chains in manufacturing and clean technology, it is critical they ensure we have the domestic research capacity we need to fuel discovery and train the next generation of talent for a knowledge-driven economy. 

It’s not too late to reverse these trends. We can rebuild our domestic research capacity, and continue leading the world in research excellence. As a first step, Canada can ensure its research granting agencies have the proper resources to fund more major discovery-oriented projects and that stipends for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows are competitive.

About Universities Canada
Universities Canada is the voice of Canada’s universities at home and abroad, advancing higher education, research and innovation for the benefit of all Canadians.

Media contact:

Lisa Wallace
Assistant Director, Communications
Universities Canada
[email protected]

Tagged:  Research and innovation

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