State of the Nation 2008

3. Foundations for Innovation — Elements of the Innovation System

3.3 International Realities and Opportunities

Innovation is taking place all over the world, and Canada operates in a global economy. Large firms are multinational, often with significant operations in many parts of the world. Even small firms are tied to the international environment through their supply chain and through the goods and services that they export. The labour market for highly qualified personnel is transnational and highly mobile. The global economy has many new entrants from non-traditional sources that strive to carve out an internationally competitive niche. This has the effect of raising the overall level of competition.

In the last 10 years, we have seen changes in how and where S&T takes place globally, which in turn have resulted in changes in production and the trade of both goods and services. Users and consumers are driving demand for innovations. At the same time, access to information and communications tools is driving a network economy and new business development models. Faced with shorter and increasingly complex production cycles, and with greater access to highly skilled and less expensive employees around the world, companies are moving away from traditional in-house R&D. Company alliances have global reach. Higher education institutions, various levels of government, and not-for-profit research organizations are seeking the best talent, ideas and knowledge wherever they exist in order to leverage in-house assets and create economic and social value. Major research initiatives in science often involve collaboration among nations, researchers and companies. Some collaboration takes place within Canada — for example in major initiatives such as SNOLAB and TRIUMF. Canada also participates in international initiatives located around the world, including, for example, the European Organization for Nuclear Research — CERN and astronomy telescopes such as the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope and Gemini North and South.

China and India are emerging as key competitors and collaborators. According to the OECD, China is now the third largest investor in R&D globally. India ranked first in a recent Economist Intelligence Unit survey on best overall overseas location for R&D. The U.S. and China were second and third.14

Interaction between scientists in touch with the most profound developments in their fields advances knowledge. The cross-fertilization of skills and ideas at the researcher level supports a range of research from basic curiosity-driven research to research that is closer to commercialization.

Canadian Light Source and International Collaboration

The Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon is Canada's national centre for synchrotron research — the use of brilliant light to view the microstructure of materials. This extremely bright light is produced by using powerful magnets and radio frequency waves to accelerate electrons to nearly the speed of light. Information obtained through the CLS enables scientists to gain powerful insights into substances as varied as soils, mine wastes, ores and minerals, biological tissues, functional foods and nutrient supplements, leading to a wide range of innovative products and processes that can improve life on the planet.

University of Saskatchewan Canada Research Chairs Graham George and Ingrid Pickering have used the CLS synchrotron to conduct research with profound applications. The contamination of well water by natural arsenic has resulted in the mass poisoning of nearly 100 million people in Bangladesh and the surrounding Ganges River Delta. Soil selenium levels in the area are very low, and the scarce selenium ingested is leached from the body in the arsenic selenium molecule. Selenium is essential to human health. Symptoms of selenium deficiency can closely resemble those of arsenic poisoning. George, Pickering and co-workers hypothesized that rather than arsenic poisoning, these Bangladeshi are actually suffering from selenium deficiency. The University of Saskatchewan team is now part of an international collaboration conducting a clinical trial of selenium supplementation in Bangladesh.

Canadian business, academic and government organizations need to have enough internal capacity to be able to absorb and adapt foreign knowledge. While it is true that the benefits of internationalR&D spill over into Canada, innovation leadership does not come from being a nation of free riders. To ensure that R&D is conducted in areas of importance to Canada and to better capture the benefits of international efforts, Canada needs a domestic S&T capacity that is both a source of world-class excellence and is capable of accessing excellence wherever it may be.


14 The Economist Intelligence Unit, Scattering the seeds of invention: The globalisation of research and development. 2004, p. 9.