Shortage? What Shortage?

Biotech and health research leaders say that Canada is ?tops? in its supply of skilled scientists. However, speaking at last month?s BIO2002 International Convention and Exhibition in Toronto, they also acknowledge that critical gaps exist in the areas of management and product development.

In an overview of the current state of and anticipated future for the Canadian biotechnology industry, Peter Harder, the deputy minister of Industry Canada, told conference participants that, according to the World Competitiveness Yearbook 2001, Canada has ?more university or college-educated workers than any other country in the G7?. This highly educated workforce contributes to ?an excellent knowledge and research base?, crowed Harder.

Harder?s claim was supported by Canadian biotech industry representatives. Julia Levy, executive chairperson of the scientific advisory board of QLT Inc., went even further, saying that, ?there is no question that Canada provides world-class scientists? and that Canada?s higher educations institutions ?provide the background and training for absolutely first-class science?. Dan Giampuzzi, president and CEO of Gemin X Biotechnologies, added that the productive academic environment means that early-stage companies such as his have access to a large pool of specialized and affordable technical and scientific staff.

?Where we are weak?, says Levy, ?is that there is no pool of experienced people in drug development, particularly on the west coast?. The reason for this, she asserts, is that Canada lacks a major pharmaceutical base from which to draw management experience, and many companies lack the depth and expertise to go through the whole manufacturing and development process. One corollary to this is that, ?you almost invariably have to import your senior management to be able to train the junior people,? Levy adds. According to Mark Lievonen, president of Aventis Pasteur Ltd., once they are recruited, these employees tend to stay--despite lower salaries than they might expect in the U.S.--because they enjoy the quality of life in Canada.

Harder believes that part of the solution to the management problem lies in changing the business culture in academic institutions so that they better foster entrepreneurship. Harder also suggested that implementing changes to immigration policies to attract ?the best? is a good idea. In fact, it is probably essential--by 2011, the government anticipates, the falling national birth rate and an aging workforce will mean that all of Canada?s labour market growth will come through immigration.

A Call to Arms

While some are saying that Canada?s local supply of scientists meets current demand, others are insisting that Canada needs more scientists if its research culture is to survive and thrive. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), for example, recently introduced a new national training initiative on the premise that Canada will require 100,000 new researchers and scientists by 2010. The prediction arises from the government?s promise to move the country from fifteenth to fifth in world R&D expenditures by the end of the decade. To achieve such a feat, the government would need to spend an additional $CA26 billion on research and development that would be conducted by this proposed new cohort of researchers.

The new training initiative goes a long way toward meeting the government?s goal and is broader than biotech and biomedical research, says Aubrey Tingle, president of British Columbia's Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, a funding partner in the program. The program, according to Tingle, has three main goals: to increase the number of scientists to meet the government?s goal of moving R&D forward; to train more scientists in underdeveloped areas of health research, such as clinical research, population studies, and aboriginal health; and to generate expertise in a variety of disciplines and skills required to interface health research and industry.

?Sure, Canada has an excellent pool of scientific talent?, explains CIHR spokesperson Andrew Matejcic, ?However, our training program and other personnel awards [are] nurturing this talent to become researchers.?

But with an explosion in the numbers of life sciences graduates and postdocs over the last 2 decades and continual reports of Ph.D. holders perpetually stuck in postdoctoral training, the conflicting messages from those in government and industry must leave young scientists wondering what the bottom line really is. So, with neither side offering hard data on the current or future demand for scientists, the question of whether the government?s science policies are leading Canada toward an oversupply of health researchers in the next decade must remain open.

Stay tuned as Next Wave Canada continues to follow the unfolding story.

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