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Canada languishing badly on innovation front

An acute shortage of PHDs in Canada could have dire consequences for the country moving forward, says Dr. Arvind Gupta, CEO and scientific director of research of MITACS. Gupta, head of an organization that connects academia, industry and the...


November 1, 2010  


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An acute shortage of PHDs in Canada could have dire consequences for the country moving forward, says Dr. Arvind Gupta, CEO and scientific director of research of MITACS.

Gupta, head of an organization that connects academia, industry and the public sector in hopes of growing a knowledge-based economy, made the comment at a recent industry roundtable held following completion of a two-day healthcare research and innovation summit at the IBM Toronto Software Lab in Markham, Ont.

Organized by MITACS — the acronym stands for Mathematics Of Information Technology And Complex Systems — and IBM Canada Ltd., the goal of the event was to examine Canada’s “challenges in healthcare innovation and offer insights on what needs to be done to make it a true competitor in the field,” a press advisory stated.

“In 1921 Sir Frederick Banting invented insulin, forever changing the lives of diabetics.

“Nine years later, three doctors from the Hospital for Sick Children created Pablum, a pre-cooked cereal that continues to nourish infants around the world to this day. Two decades later John Hopps discovered electrical impulses to the heart ensured a steady, regular heartbeat, and with this, the pacemaker was born. Once a country of medical firsts, Canada now languishes near the bottom of the list of OECD nations when it comes to competitiveness and innovation. Why? What can be done to restore Canada’s eminence?”

Other roundtable speakers included Helene Joncas, chief strategy officer of CANARIE (Canada’s Advanced Research and Innovation Network) and Dr. Dave Williams, a former Canadian astronaut and current director of the McMaster Centre for Medical Robotics at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, Ont.

“We have pockets of activity, but there is no vision, there is no strategy and that has a lot of impact,” said Joncas. “I was surprised to learn that Canada’s international collaboration with the EU has gone down from 56 projects four years ago to 14 as part of a program known as Framework 7. That is very disturbing.

“We need to think more about what it is we want to do and then figure out a strategy to enable that.”

While CANARIE’s high-speed fiber-optic network enables 39,000 researchers to share and analyze data instantaneously, panelists agreed that it is going to take more than technology advances to solve the problem.

Canada, said Gupta has fallen from seventh to 20th among members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in terms of the percentage of PHDs graduating from universities.

“PHDs are the lifeblood of the knowledge economy,” he said. “When we fall from seventh to 20th in 35 years then we are in trouble.”

Industry, added Gupta, has to be part of the training agenda in this country because the old model of universities pumping out students is broken.

“When I went to McGill University as an undergraduate training as a neuroscientist, the model that existed in those days was I train as a neuroscientist and I will be a neuroscientist,” said Williams. “I have been a neuroscientist, emergency physician, an astronaut and now I am teaching in the school of bio-medical engineering. The concept is probably a little outdated.

“When you think about giving people the skills they need to go off and accept the challenges that are aligned with their passion that is when we get the great results in innovation.”

An example of that is health informatics, defined by Wikipedia as a discipline at the intersection of information science, computer science and health care.

“The delivery of health care in space is global,” said Williams. “I don’t have a license to practice medicine in Russia, nor do I have a license to practice medicine in the United States.

“However, I was able to treat people in space as a Canadian licensed physician. We would take clinical data from the space station and downlink to an integrated digital suite of technology electronic medical record that enables flight surgeons in Canada, the U.S., Japan and Russia to access this information. We could do it because we were in space and did not have to worry about all of the laws on Earth.

“What we could do is prove that it works. There are physical exams every month in space to maintain wellness through an informatics system in which data is transferred to flight surgeons on the ground. Why is it that my 89-year-old mother in the cold of winter has to go out to her doctor’s office to get her blood pressure checked?”