State of the Nation 2014

Canada's Science, Technology and Innovation System: Canada's Innovation Challenges and Opportunities

Chapter 4: Talented people

Key Findings

  • Canada doubled the number of doctoral degrees granted in science and engineering (per 100,000 population) between 2006 and 2012, moving from 19th to 17th position in international rankings. Climbing from 41 percent to 69 percent of the threshold of the top five performing countries, this was a notable improvement in Canada's performance on this aspirational indicator.
  • Although Canada experienced 7 percent growth in the number of graduates (not including PhDs) in science, engineering, business and health over the period between 2006 and 2012, its global ranking slipped from 14th to 16th.
  • Canada ranked fifth among comparator countries in 2012 (down from second in 2008) in the number of college graduates in business, engineering, science and health.
  • Canadian adults performed strongly in international tests on literacy, numeracy and problem solving. Canadian 15-year-olds continued to score well in reading, math, science and creative problem solving, although Canada slipped marginally in its international rankings.
  • The proportion of international students at Canadian universities and colleges rose from 7.7 percent in 2007 to 8.2 percent in 2012. Despite this increase, Canada dropped from fifth position among international competitors in 2007 to seventh position in 2012.

Global competition is fierce for talent with the advanced knowledge and skills necessary to harness science, technology and innovation (ST&I) and meet the needs of diverse employers. To assess whether Canada is keeping pace in this domain, three components that drive success and define leadership are reviewed:

  • the ability to develop talent with the right knowledge and skills, including science and engineering doctoral graduates (wherein another aspirational indicator lies);
  • the educational foundation for children and youth; and
  • the strength of linkages to the global pool of talent and knowledge.

Talent with the Right Knowledge and Skills

Canada's highly educated population is an asset, as education is the foundation of discovery and innovation. Canada continued to lead the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2012 in the proportion of the population with a post-secondary education.30 The comparatively high share of the population that had attained a college level education contributed significantly to Canada's leadership position on this indicator.

The Right Knowledge

Doctoral graduates represent top talent in a world where the creation and application of new knowledge drive economic growth and societal advances. Although Canada remained around the middle of the pack in the number of science and engineering doctoral degrees granted per 100,000 population in 2012, our growth rate on this measure was significant. Between 2006 and 2012, Canada more than doubled the number of science and engineering doctoral degrees granted, from 4.6 to 9.6 per 100,000 population (with science disciplines accounting for about two thirds of the total number and engineering for about one third in 2012). As a result of this growth, Canada rose from 19th of 23 countries in 2006 to 17th of 28 countries in 2012, ahead of the United States (U.S.), which ranked 20th.

Although Canada remained around the middle of the pack in the number of science and engineering doctoral degrees granted per 100,000 population in 2012, our growth rate on this measure was significant.

Most notably, this strong growth drove an improvement in Canada's position relative to the top five performing countries (Switzerland, Sweden, Ireland, the Slovak Republic and the United Kingdom (U.K.)), from 41 percent to 69 percent of the threshold required to break into their ranks (Figure 4-1).31

Figure 4-1: Science and Engineering Graduates at the Doctoral Level per 100,000 Population, 2012

Bar chart of  science and engineering graduates at the doctoral level per 100,000 population, 2012 (the long description is located below the image)

Source: OECD, Graduates by Field of Study and Population, October 2014.

* Note: Data for total science and engineering degrees per 100,000 population in 2006 are not available for Norway, Netherlands, Italy, Luxembourg and Japan.

Description of figure 4-1

Grand Challenges Canada: Loving the Loo — Innovation in Design and Business Strategy Improves Sanitation in Rural Nepal

Photo showing Nepalese family outside latrine

Some 2.5 billion people worldwide lack adequate sanitation and hygiene, resulting in extensive health problems and even death. As part of its efforts to address this issue, Grand Challenges Canada (GCC), which funds innovators in low- and middle-income countries and Canada, is supporting iDE Canada in a sanitation project in Nepal. iDE Canada, a Winnipeg-based non-profit organization that supports small businesses in the developing world, is strengthening the capacity of local entrepreneurs in Nepal to develop a sustainable market for latrine products. A key aspect of this innovative approach is marketing simple, low-cost toilets as a status symbol and sanitation as an affordable source of pride.

"The traditional approach — standard public health messages coupled with give-away programs that sideline local businesses — is not working," says Stu Taylor, iDE's Director of Performance Measurement. "Our experience shows that when you make sanitation affordable and desirable for users — and profitable for businesses — it just takes off." iDE's marketing approach is complemented by training for small-scale local producers and entrepreneurs to produce and sell simple-design, low-cost latrines that can be easily installed within a few hours.

In just one year, iDE has helped facilitate the production and sale of over 15,000 latrines. Over the course of three years, the project is projected to reach a total of 50,000 latrines, improving the lives of an estimated 250,000 people in Nepal, while demonstrating a viable social entrepreneurship model to tackle this urgent public health crisis.

iDE is a powerful example of GCC's concept of "integrated innovation": coordinated application of scientific/technological, social and business innovation to develop solutions to complex challenges. This approach underscores the synergies that can be realized by aligning these three types of innovation.

Figure 4-2: University (Tertiary-A) Graduates in Health, Engineering, Science and Business per 100,000 Population, 2006 and 2012

Bar chart of  university (tertiary-A) graduates in health, engineering, science and business per 100,000 Population, 2006 and 2012 (the long description is located below the image)

Source: OECD, Graduates by Field of Study and Population, October 2014.

Description of figure 4-2

Looking at PhD graduates by gender reveals that 32.9 percent of Canada's science and engineering PhD graduates were women in 2012, up from 27.2 percent in 2006. This share was significantly lower than that of the leading countries, the U.K. (49 percent) and the U.S. (46 percent), with which Canada often compares itself. In 2012, Canada ranked 20th (of 28 countries) on this measure, a slight improvement from 21st (of 23 countries) in 2006. While this reflects a gender imbalance in Canada, the growth trend in female PhD graduates is encouraging. Over the 2006–2012 period, the number of female doctoral graduates in science per 100,000 population grew by 144.8 percent,32 outpacing growth in all other OECD countries except Turkey. The number of female doctoral graduates in engineering per 100,000 population grew by 163 percent,33 a faster rate than Australia, the U.K. and the U.S., among others.

Looking at other university levels, Canada produced fewer graduates (not including PhDs) per 100,000 population in science, engineering, business and health than many other countries. Although Canada experienced 7 percent growth in this area over the period between 2006 and 2012, most other countries saw more substantial growth. Thus Canada's global ranking on this measure slipped from 14th in 2006 to 16th in 2012 (Figure 4-2).34 The gap between Canada and the top five performers also widened, with Canada at 61 percent of the threshold of the top five performers in 2012, down from 69 percent in 2006. While outperforming Switzerland and Germany, Canada lagged other key competitors such as the U.S., the U.K. and the Nordic countries.

Figure 4-3:College (Tertiary-B) Graduates in Business, Engineering, Science and Health per 100,000 Population, 2008 and 2012

Bar chart of college (tertiary-B) graduates in business, engineering, science and health per 100,000 population, for 2008 and 2012 (the long description is located below the image)

Source: OECD, Graduates by Field of Study and Population, October 2014.

Description of figure 4-3

At the college level, in 2012, Canada ranked fifth among comparator countries in the number of graduates (per 100,000 population) in business, engineering, science and health (Figure 4-3),35 outperforming most OECD countries on this measure. This was down from 2008, when Canada ranked second. It reflected the 33 percent drop in college graduates in Canada in these areas between 2008 and 2012.

The Right Skills

To meet the needs of ST&I employers across the economy, and to prepare people to start and grow their own innovative firms, disciplinary and technical knowledge must be complemented with a broader range of skills. These include basic cognitive skills, such as literacy and numeracy; higher order cognitive skills, including creative problem solving and critical thinking; business and management skills; and teamwork and communication skills. Although these skills are in high demand, a lack of reliable data — both Canadian and international — constrains our ability to report on Canada's performance in a meaningful way.

The 2012 results of the OECD's Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) provide some insights into the skills of Canada's adults (16 to 65 years of age). In literacy, Canada ranked 10th (mean score), performing at approximately 98 percent of the threshold of the top five performers (Japan, Finland, Netherlands, Australia and Sweden) and ahead of ST&I leaders such as Korea, the U.K., Germany and the U.S.36 In numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments, Canada ranked 13th and 7th respectively.

On both of these indicators, Canada sat at approximately 95 percent of the threshold of the top five performers. (The top five performers in numeracy were Japan, Finland, Netherlands, Sweden and Norway, while the top five in problem solving in technology-rich environments were Sweden, Finland, Netherlands, Norway and Denmark.) Canada had a larger proportion of adults at the lowest proficiency levels in all three skills (compared with the OECD average), especially among Aboriginal adults living in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. (See Annex 4 for more detail on the PIAAC results.)

Gender Differences in Choosing a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) University Program

Research from Statistics Canada in 2013 showed that young men were more than twice as likely as young women to opt for a STEM program as their first choice in university. Young women were much more likely to choose a first program in social sciences. Even those with higher Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores were less likely to choose a STEM program than young men with lower PISA scores (23 percent versus 39 percent). Social sciences were preferred by most females, regardless of mathematical proficiency. In contrast, males were always more likely to choose a STEM program, even those with a lower proficiency in mathematics according to PISA results.

Source: Darcy Hango, "Gender Differences in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science (STEM) Programs at University," Statistics Canada, Catalogue no.75-066-X, December 2013.

A Strong Educational Foundation

Improving a country's production of high-quality talent requires a strong educational foundation for children and youth. Canada continued to perform well in the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures the abilities of 15-year-olds in reading, math and science.

According to the 2012 PISA results, Canada still ranked among the leaders, although its relative position deteriorated slightly. In 2012, Canada ranked 8th in reading (down from 6th in 2009),37 13th in math (down from 10th in 2009) and 9th in science (down from 8th in 2009) (see Annex 4 for in-depth PISA breakdowns).38 As with many other countries, notable gender differences continued to exist in Canada, with girls outperforming boys in reading and boys outperforming girls in both math and science.

In reading, test results showed that Canadian 15-year-olds performed at approximately 97.6 percent (down from 99.6 percent in 2009) of the threshold of the top five performers (Japan, Finland, Netherlands, Australia and Sweden) and ahead of ST&I leaders such as Korea, the U.K., Germany and the U.S. Canada was at 93.5 percent of the threshold of the top five performers in math (down from 97 percent in 2009), well ahead of the U.S., but behind the leaders (Shanghai-China, Singapore, Hong Kong-China, Chinese Taipei and Korea). In science, Canada sat at around 96 percent of the threshold of the top five performers (Shanghai-China, Hong Kong-China, Singapore, Japan and Finland), down from 98 percent in 2009.

People who excel in science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship tend to be creative problem solvers who are open to new ideas, take intelligent risks, and use intuition and ambition to pursue opportunities. The PISA results showed that, in 2012, students in Singapore, Korea and Japan, typically ST&I leaders, scored higher in problem solving (with scores ranging from 552 to 562) than students elsewhere, including Canada. With a score of 526, Canadian students nonetheless scored well above those in some other ST&I leading countries, namely Germany, the U.S. and Norway.39

Globally Connected Talent

In high demand around the world, accomplished people are increasingly willing and able to go where the best opportunities lie. With a limited population and thus a relatively small pool of domestic talent, Canada needs to be competitive in connecting with the "best and the brightest" throughout the world. These international connections can bring knowledge, skills, experience and networks that enhance Canada's ST&I enterprise.

International Students

Attracting international students to Canada's universities, polytechnics and colleges is an excellent way to strengthen linkages to the global ST&I enterprise. In 2012, 8.2 percent of all students in Canada were international, up from 7.7 percent in 2007 and more than twice the proportion in the U.S. (3.5 percent). Despite this increase, Canada's international ranking dropped from fifth in 2007 to seventh in 2012, and Canada sat at 53 percent of the threshold of the top five performers (Australia, the U.K., Switzerland, New Zealand and Austria).

Immigration

Skilled and highly educated immigrants can also make important contributions to innovation in Canada. U.S.-based research has shown that immigrants are overrepresented as business owners, founders of high-tech start-ups, patent holders, Nobel Prize winners and exporters.40 Unfortunately, similar Canadian data have not been collected. New and improved data that measure the role and outcomes of immigrants in Canada's ST&I ecosystem are needed to assess performance and contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of ecosystem dynamics.

Cross-Border Study of Beaufort Sea Ecosystem: Stantec (Newfoundland)

In 2014, Stantec Newfoundland, an arm of Stantec Inc., was selected by the United States (U.S.) Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the National Oceanographic Partnership Program to play a lead role in the Marine Arctic Ecosystem Study (MARES). This exciting project aims to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the Beaufort Sea, especially the interrelationships of its physical, biological, chemical and human systems, and to advance scientific prediction capabilities for linkages between marine life, human uses, sea ice, atmospheric and oceanic processes, and river discharge. The research will enhance knowledge in several areas, including environmental protection, climate change, food security, biodiversity, exploration and discovery, and ecosystem services. This knowledge will facilitate decision making by governments, industry and communities related to regulations, resource management, economic development and environmental protection.

MARES will cross the U.S.–Canada border along the Beaufort Sea shelf from Barrow, Alaska, to the Mackenzie River delta. It will integrate research from 10 disciplines (seven led by Stantec) and involve the Inupiat and Inuvialuit communities and more than 25 universities, environmental research organizations, consulting firms and independent scientists. The study will use multiple sampling platforms, including ships, drones, satellites and snow machines; multiple sampling techniques, such as ice and snow sensors, acoustics and nets; and multiple ocean, ice and air modelling approaches.

According to Diane Ingraham, Canadian project manager, "It's a pretty spectacular opportunity for us to take some of the expertise we've learned in offshore oil and gas and managing big projects in harsh environments …. we're able to take that expertise and use it to execute this project in the Beaufort Sea off of Alaska."

International Co-Publications

Collaborative research with peers and institutions abroad, reflected in international co-publications, is another important way to link to the global pool of talent and knowledge. In 2012, international co-publications accounted for 45.2 percent of Canada's total publications, compared with 42.1 percent in 2006.41 This increase continued the steady upward trend evident since 1980.

Despite this increase, Canada ranked 12th (of 30 countries) on this measure in 2012, standing at 79 percent of the threshold of the top five performers, a drop from 4th place and 102 percent of the top five threshold in 2006. Seven of the countries that significantly outscored Canada were small European countries aggressively seeking international collaboration: Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands and Finland. Other countries that outranked Canada, but by a less significant margin, were (with one exception) larger countries: France, Portugal, the U.K. and Germany.

Conclusions

Canada's talent base continues to be an asset. In 2012, we led the OECD in the proportion of the population with a post-secondary education, driven by the comparatively large share of Canadians with a college education. Also in 2012, although our PISA rankings slipped marginally, Canadian 15-year-olds performed just shy of the threshold of the top five performers in reading, math and science. Similarly, in 2013, Canadian adults scored just shy of the top five threshold in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments. Although still underperforming competitors, Canada also made significant progress by 2012 in growing the number of PhD graduates in science and engineering. However, Canada's talent performance showed some signs of erosion, as our ranking on university graduates in science, engineering, business and health (excluding PhDs) dropped to 16th in 2012.

While developing talent is critical, it is equally important that we understand how talent is deployed across the economy. Despite a lack of data tracking the career outcomes of university and college graduates, and PhD graduates in particular, it is clear from the analysis in chapter 2 that Canada's private sector is not absorbing advanced research talent to the degree seen in competitor countries.


30 OECD, Education at a Glance, 2014 Return to text

31 OECD, Graduates by Field of Study and Population, October 2014. Return to text

32 STIC tabulations based on data from OECD, Graduates by Field of Study, October 2014. Return to text

33 STIC tabulations based on data from OECD, Graduates by Field of Study, October 2014. Return to text

34 OECD, Graduates by Field of Study and Population, October 2014. Return to text

35 OECD, Graduates by Field of Study and Population, October 2014. Return to text

36 STIC calculations based on data extracted from the OECD (October 2012) and Statistics Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada, and the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, Skills in Canada: First Results from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), Catalogue no. 89-555-X, 2013. Return to text

37 Changes in the countries represented in PISA in 2012, 2009 and 2006 significantly impact our ability to compare Canada's performance with others; thus 2009 is used as the baseline year for PISA comparisons. Return to text

38 OECD, PISA 2012 Results: What Students Know and Can Do — Student Performance in Mathematics, Reading and Science, Volume I, Revised Edition, February 2014. Return to text

39 OECD, "Are 15-Year-Olds Creative Problem-Solvers?," PISA in Focus, April 2014. Return to text

40 World Intellectual Property Organization, U.S. High-Skilled Immigration, Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Empirical Approaches and Evidence, Economic Research Working Paper No. 16, 2014. Return to text

41 Observatoire des sciences et des techniques, Tableaux d'indicateurs de référence et rapports à télécharger, 2014. Return to text