globeandmail.com: Why is Canadian science on the Nobel sidelines?
Why is Canadian science on the Nobel sidelines?
FEN OSLER HAMPSON AND ALEX MACKENZIE
Special to Globe and Mail Update
November 30, 2007 at 2:08 AM EST
This year's Nobel Prize sweepstakes have come and gone with Canadian
scientists once again looking on from the sidelines. This despite
hundreds of millions of dollars of federal research funding to enhance
Canadian competitiveness in a world where science, knowledge and
innovation are increasingly viewed as the drivers of economic power and
the keys to prosperity. We think of ourselves as world class and like to
rub shoulders with the best. Sad to say, the world hasn't yet taken notice.
The Canada Research Chairs program, cornerstone of "a national strategy
to make Canada one of the world's top countries for research and
development," pumps $300-million a year into Canadian universities to
attract and retain world-class researchers. Additional federal funding
for research to universities and institutes is distributed through a
variety of granting agencies, line departments and foundations,
including the Canadian Institute of Health Research, the Natural
Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Social Sciences
and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Foundation
Are these resources catapulting us into the top ranks of research and
scholarly attainment? Not on the basis of available evidence. All but
two of the 16 Canadian Nobel laureates carried out their research
outside of Canada — usually in the United States. Some will argue that
Nobel Prizes, bestowed years after an individual has done his or her
best work, are a poor indicator of our current success and standing in
the world. But there are other awards that are pretty good predictors of
Nobels-in-the-making. One of these, the Lasker prize, is arguably the
most prestigious award for medicine in America. Only two Canadians —
Ernest McCulloch and James Till — have been awarded the Lasker in recent
years and this for stem-cell work done in the 1960s.
The picture is not much better if one looks at other disciplines. No
Canadian has ever won the Fields Medal (named after a Canadian
mathematician), the Nobel Prize equivalent for mathematics. The American
Academy of Science, which boasts as members the elite of the scientific
world, has a total of 16 Canadians. The University of Cambridge has 23.
And the picture does not appear to be improving. A 2004 review (the most
recent comparison available) by the journal Nature showed that Canada's
share of the total number of citations in all fields of science and
engineering dropped from 5.59 per cent of world totals to 5.3 per cent
between the period 1993-97 and 1997-01 even though we ranked seventh
overall. Our scientific output and outcomes when adjusted for the size
of our population and wealth (measured by GDP) place us well below
countries such as Switzerland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Austria,
Belgium and Sweden in global rankings.
It is natural to try to explain our relatively poor performance to
funding inadequacy. But, even if that is so, the difficulties go much
deeper and include (1) excess due diligence in all respects (e.g.
onerous application procedures and reporting) that takes both the mind
and the time of scientists away from science; (2) fewer young Canadians
choosing science as a career path; (3) our failure to lure young,
international intellectual human capital that so often enables true
excellence in research; (4) the asymmetry between research
infrastructure (well resourced) and the salaries and funds to conduct
research (chronically underfunded); (5) the federal government's recent
dispersal of funds outside established peer-review agencies; and (6) the
ever-increasing focus on applied research and commercial payoff to the
detriment of basic research combined with the self-defeating emphasis on
quick "returns" and strategic objectives.
But there exists another largely ignored ingredient that is essential to
the mix: a rigorous and unbending adherence to scholarly and research
excellence by the research community with the concentration of scarce
research dollars where they can have the most impact — i.e. those
institutions, research groups and individuals whose work is recognized
internationally for its quality and originality. The world's top
research universities and centres of research did not get to where they
are by being indifferent to the exacting standards of peer review,
quality driven research and the sheer desire for excellence.
In the United Kingdom, all higher educational institutions are subjected
to a rigorous peer-review exercise every five years. Research outputs
and quality are carefully measured by a panel of outside experts. Panels
assess those outputs according to their originality, rigour and
significance. In the United States, citation indexes and academic
journal rankings play a key role in an individual's advancement through
the scholarly ranks.
It is a matter for discussion whether Canada should adopt a British
style of research assessment evaluation for its institutions of higher
education, or use the same criteria as the Americans in assessing
scholarly and research merit. But something is going to have to be done
to raise standards of achievement and enable the performance we are
truly capable of. It is wrong to assume that greater infusions of
research dollars alone will make us top-notch. We also must change our
mindset, which assumes that being good at what we do is "good enough."
And if we do not, we should acknowledge that Canada will never rise to
the ranks of the best, and will rarely win those enchanting prizes that
are the true mark of excellence and international scientific primacy.
Fen Osler Hampson is director of the Norman Paterson School of
International Affairs at Carleton University. Alex MacKenzie is
vice-president for research at the Children's Hospital of Eastern
Ontario and professor of pediatrics at the University of Ottawa.