From a recent column in the Telegraph-Journal.
Why is research and development spending in New Brunswick on the decline?
Between 2001 and 2007 New Brunswick led the country among the 10 provinces in the growth of R&D spending (public and private). Between 2007 and 2012, total R&D spending in the province dropped by 19 per cent.
One reason has been the decline in government-funded research. Statistics Canada tracks annual spending on research and development by science, source of funding and by sector. Between 2001 and 2007 federal government spending on R&D in New Brunswick nearly doubled from $43 million to $84 million. Provincial spending increased from $5 million to $17 million.
However, since then government-funded R&D has dropped off the radar. Federal spending declined by eight per cent between 2007 and 2012 while provincial investment in R&D dropped back down to just $7 million in 2012.
I have asked a few people who should know why R&D spending has dropped since 2007 and I get a range of answers from “Statistics Canada isn’t properly tracking the spending” to “there just aren’t a lot of interesting R&D opportunities down here”.
One thing most people agree on is that we don’t have many public or privately funded research organizations that have the scale to compete for big national and international R&D projects.
One of the province’s long standing marine-related research organizations, the Huntsman Marine Science Centre in St. Andrews, has been involved in a variety of important research efforts over the years including an important role in the development of the aquaculture industry.
If we were ever going to be a world leader in some area of research it should naturally have something to do with the Bay of Fundy.
Jamey Smith, the Executive Director at the Huntsman, believes there are a wide variety of opportunities for more research that leverages both the physical and research ecosystems in the area.
He believes the expertise they have built working with the aquaculture industry could be used to tap international markets.
He also believes there is considerable opportunity to conduct more research into the medicinal properties of the fish and plants in the Bay of Fundy. The Huntsman already has one pharmaceutical industry client and is in discussions with another.
Smith says the Huntsman should be able to expand its research activities into the energy industry including the oil and gas development sector.
In recent years, entrepreneur incubation centres have been popping up all over the province. Beyond providing generic business support for start-ups, it would be interesting to align our entrepreneur incubation efforts with research and development opportunities.
For example, the Huntsman could become a global centre for marine-related research-based entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs with interesting research ideas could be attracted from around the world to conduct their research in New Brunswick and also start their new business ventures here. We could match the researchers with capital and the business skills needed to effectively turn new ideas into business opportunities.
But this brings the conversation back to scale. There are few research organizations in New Brunswick, if any, with the scale to promote themselves in any serious way beyond the borders of the province.
We need to go back to the drawing board and think about how small provinces can effectively compete for research and innovation spending.
I would like to see us focus on the research organization that have enough scale or could build enough scale in short order to compete for global research opportunities. We need to focus in areas where we have an advantage although I am not necessarily making the case for research into the medicinal properties of dulse or periwinkles.
Finally, we need to think about how we can effectively collaborate to simulate scale. Maybe we should think about aligning all the federal and provincial trade development resources in New Brunswick with our research organizations to promote R&D opportunities far and wide.
We spend a lot of time and effort promoting New Brunswick seafood and other industries. R&D opportunities should be treated in the same way.
Former Premier Bernard Lord’s goal of becoming one of the top provinces in Canada for R&D spending per capita has long since been relegated to the dustbin. As of 2012, we are still dead last among the 10 provinces.
If we are going to make any real headway, we will need our research organizations such as the Huntsman Marine Science Centre to lead the way.