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The influence and reach of Canadian clean technology research in the international scientific community is mediocre at best, according to the results of a federal review panel looking at the state of federal support for science.

Canada trailed 11 other countries when it came to the amount of research articles and review papers published on clean tech over the first half of this decade, the Advisory Panel on Federal Support for Fundamental Science has found.

Canada’s share of global publications in clean technology has been just 3.1 per cent in that time period, and has hovered around the three per cent range for 15 years, according to the report, “Investing in Canada’s Future: Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research.”

The panel’s main recommendations are for $1.3 billion in new funding for scientific research, and for legislation to create a new National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation to oversee federal research dollars.

Its "overall conclusion" was that "independent science and scholarly inquiry have been underfunded for much of the last decade," and pointed the finger at the Harper government's drive for commercialization of research.

“Today is a good day, the first time a report of this kind has been issued in 40 years,” said Science Minister Kirsty Duncan, who commissioned the review last June.

“I am looking forward now that I have the report to reviewing the recommendations,” she said after Question Period on Parliament Hill today in a brief media appearance.

Duncan said she was also struck by concerns raised by scientists who have had trouble getting grants at early stages in her career. She said that young scientists would have a hard time advancing if they have to wait until they turn 40 to get their first grant.

A section from the federal science review shows clean tech research in Canada ranks 12th globally for number of scientific articles and review papers. Screenshot from report.

The report shows that gross domestic expenditure on research and development relative to the country’s GDP has been on a decade-and-a-half decline. Canadian research, the panel found, is “at serious risk of losing ground relative to peer nations,” and “early erosion of its foundations already apparent.”

For example, the report notes, while Canada broke ground on research related to artificial intelligence and regenerative medicine like stem cells, other countries have moved in and are widening their leads.

“It appears that Canada has briefly claimed bragging rights in certain fields based on excellence in one or two centres, but systematically failed to build national capacity that would create an enduring advantage,” the report states.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals formed a new government in 2015 following an election campaign in which they pledged to value science and treat scientists with respect.

This was after the Liberals had criticized former prime minister Stephen Harper's government for focusing federal investments on research with commercial applications and moving away from basic research.

The Harper government declared four research priorities in 2007, the report said: "environment, natural resources and energy, health and life sciences, and information and communications technologies."

The "primary effect" of this concentration, it continued, was to emphasize so-called STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math) "at the expense of the social sciences and humanities, and not much more."

It went on to say that the Harper government added "advanced manufacturing" in 2014 and added agriculture to the environment concentration.

Duncan said she was looking forward to reviewing the report's recommendations in a brief media appearance after Question Period Monday. Photo by Alex Tétreault

While the report’s 35 recommendations are the outcome of a study of a wide range of emerging technologies, such as quantum computing, robotics and genomics, its findings related to clean technology may strike some as particularly disappointing.

Canada was associated with 2,422 articles and review papers on clean tech, the report found, from 2011 to 2015. The total result is lower than 11 other countries, and less than one sixth of the top performer, the United States.

Clean technology covers a broad spectrum of research, including that of wind and solar energy, biofuels, hydropower, and low-emission and zero-emission technology.

The U.S. and China lead the pack in published clean tech research, with thousands more publications to their names than other countries. But some national economies that are relatively comparable in size to Canada’s, like Italy and Spain, still boast hundreds more publications.

Following the U.S., the other countries are, in order: China, South Korea, India, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, Spain, Taiwan, Italy, and France.

Canada’s share of global publications on clean tech also represents the third-lowest percentage amongst the 15 emerging research areas that the expert panel studied. It share represents less than half of the share of the top category, personalized medicine.

What’s more, less than half of Canada’s publications on clean tech in the time period studied contained one or more co-authors from outside Canada. That’s a key factor the expert panel was looking for when determining a paper’s international significance.

Canada’s share of global publications in selected emerging research areas, 2011-2015. Clean tech is second from left, at 3.1 per cent, the third-lowest amongst the 15 areas studied. Screenshot from report.

In terms of other indicators that show the kind of impact Canada’s clean tech research has made on the international scientific community, the report found mixed results.

Canadian clean tech scientists had on average 14.6 citations per publication, compared to a high of 19.7 for Singapore and a low of 5.6 for Brazil, and they landed in 522 publications that are among the top 10 per cent most cited, compared to 4,280 for the U.S. and 160 for Brazil.

Citations are a "proxy for impact of Canadian-authored work," the report notes, and the country's performance across all research subject areas examined was similarly mixed. While papers were cited at a rate that put Canada in the top six nations globally, the growth rate was 15th, "suggesting again that Canada is stalling relative to peers."

Neither is Canada winning international scientific prizes like the Nobel Prize at the rate of the U.S. or the U.K., it notes, and the country is being out-performed by Australia on this and several other measures.

Canadians working in the U.S. bagged twice as many Nobels as Canadian-born or foreign-born scientists in Canada, for example.

Despite the clean tech numbers, the report lays out the necessity for Canadian scientific research into the environment and climate change. Successfully tackling myriad global issues will require a robust multi-disciplinary approach, including in the area of “climate change and environmental degradation,” it states.

“Responding to these issues will clearly call for major contributions from natural scientists, geographers, and engineers—for example, assessing impacts on Canada’s fresh water, atmosphere, and coastal lands, devising alternative energy solutions, and developing clean technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while staying competitive globally,” it continues.

“Health researchers will also need to address any health threats arising from climate change, and the ethical, legal, and social issues seem destined to rise steadily given the global scope of the effects now being seen. Moreover, social psychologists may have a unique niche in addressing the cognitive dissonance that polarizes discourse on this topic.”​

The panel was led by David Naylor, the former president of the University of Toronto, and received over 1,200 submissions during its work, which also included a dozen roundtables in five cities with 230 researchers.

with files from Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

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