IN THE MEDIA ~ Op-Ed ~ Hill Times ~ Canada needs policies to drive 21st century economy

Canada needs policies to drive 21st century economy

We ignore the alarm bells at our peril. While most of the world’s innovating nations are increasing resources for R&D, total financial resources in Canada have actually decreased.

NDP MP Peter Julian

In June, we saw troubling numbers from the most recent state of the nation report by the Science and Technology Innovation Council. Canada ranked last amongst OECD countries in direct research and development public funding, almost last in the number of patents developed, and second last in PhD graduates. R&D should be a productive engine bringing prosperity to the doorsteps of all Canadians, but under the Conservatives that is unfortunately not the case.

We ignore the alarm bells at our peril. While most of the world’s innovating nations are increasing resources for R&D, total financial resources in Canada have actually decreased. Today, eight of 10 Canadian industry sectors had lower R&D intensity than the OECD average. In short, Canada needs policies to drive the 21st century economy, or we will be left behind. 

While the Harper government has ostensibly undertaken a federal R&D review, Canadians could be forgiven for doubting that any resulting recommendations will be implemented. The Conservative government’s spotty support on scientific innovation is well-known: they axed the national science adviser in 2008 and scoff at re-instating this vital institution. Their science and technology plan is weak and has little follow-through. Cancelling the long-form census in the face of stiff business resistance demonstrated that they do not understand the key role of science or the kind of society in which innovation thrives. When they act, they opt for flashy one-off programs which are well-designed photo opportunities but offer little value for money as a national strategy.

The Conservative government is even taking aim core funding for sector councils, a proven national program that aligns needed human resources with business interests. Instead of pulling back federal involvement, New Democrats believe that we should be looking for ways to bolster the sector councils and broaden their mandate to include R&D and other strategic investments. It is not always clear where synergies can be found until the right people are around the table, and the market can be notoriously weak at identifying opportunities for investment and long-term labour force development.

 Though Canada is blessed with abundant natural resources, we need to invest in human capital to ensure our economic security for the future. New Democrats have a vision for a modern Canadian economy:  high-quality jobs, a cutting-edge and dynamic private sector, and a highly-educated workforce able to prosper at home. We face unique challenges compared to other knowledge-driven economies: we are a large, geographically-diverse country with a much more dispersed population. But with the right policies, these challenges become the best reason to develop a made-in-Canada innovation plan.

We need to build on the strengths of small and medium-size enterprises to attract young talent and build market success. Yet, we cannot forget that well-designed regulation can drive innovation: for instance, in the pulp and paper industry, environmental regulations have been shown to drive incremental innovation. Putting off needed regulations is a false kind of friendship, and does not serve any industry’s long-term best interests. 

 Let’s cultivate talent. While we have an excellent talent pool and young Canadians excel in science, math and reading, we need a national approach to post-secondary education, universalizing access and affordability. Unfortunately, under the Conservative government Canada has higher unemployment levels for science-based doctoral-level graduates than other OECD countries. We need to ensure our graduates can stay and contribute to the Canadian economy.

 We also need to increase support for basic research through our formidable national research councils. New Democrats believe in protecting and maintaining the quality of our universities and our strong public research capacity. Canada ranks first in the G7 in terms of R&D performed by the higher education sector as a percentage of GDP, and this success is testament to the quality and worth of our public institutions.

 Ensuring the building blocks of productivity, we should ramp up investment in high-quality infrastructure support. New Democrats are committed to modernizing Canada’s approach to telecommunications and facilitating broadband access for remote communities.

 Above all, successful R&D is vital to maintaining a strong manufacturing base in the Canadian economy. Over the last 20 years, the share of Canadian workers employed in manufacturing has declined by almost half—this has been exacerbated recently by the skyrocketing Canadian dollar.  But strong R&D directly and indirectly supports the creation of highly skilled, high added value jobs that are the backbone of a strong modern economy. As a critical net benefit to Canada, R&D must be prioritized in the Canada Investment Act so that high quality jobs stay on Canadian soil.

 These are the pieces of the innovation puzzle that will propel us into a prosperous future. New Democrats will be working in Parliament to advance these proposals so Canada can make the most of our strategic advantages.

NDP MP Peter Julian, who represents Burnaby-New Westminster, B.C., is his party’s industry critic.

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