Scientific Research and Development | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Scientific Research and Development

"Research and Development" is a phrase used to denote activities the overall goal of which is to gain and use knowledge. These activities are normally well organized, making use of the methods of various branches of knowledge and the services of highly trained personnel.

Scientific Research and Development

"Research and Development" is a phrase used to denote activities the overall goal of which is to gain and use knowledge. These activities are normally well organized, making use of the methods of various branches of knowledge and the services of highly trained personnel. Scientific research and development (referred to in this article as "R & D") signifies activities focused on the natural sciences rather than the humanities and social sciences. R & D is usually classified, according to its aims, into 3 broad categories: pure research, applied research and development. Pure research is curiosity oriented, undertaken to advance knowledge for its own sake; applied research is carried out in anticipation that its results will be useful to TECHNOLOGY; development is concerned with transforming technological knowledge into concrete operational hardware. The R & D process is often described by linking the 3 categories. Applied research is said to use the ideas generated by pure research in making inventions which, in turn, are made commercially viable through development. This description, while suggestive of how knowledge is applied, is too simplistic to be of much use in understanding R & D efforts.

R & D in Canada has many similarities with R & D in other countries. An awareness of the general development and chief features of R & D is important for understanding its state in Canada.

R & D, as a formal activity, began to emerge in the second half of the 19th century and grew very rapidly in the 20th. The quickening pace of industrialization in such countries as Germany and the US and the increasing utility of science were important factors in its rise. The growth of R & D occurred within an institutional context, composed of higher education, INDUSTRY and the state. Universities in many countries strove to follow the lead of those in Germany by introducing laboratory science and higher degrees for research, and by coming to see research as one of their duties. Certain industries, the ELECTRIC-POWER and CHEMICAL industries being the best examples, were created or revolutionized by scientific knowledge. These science-based industries were also the first to establish research laboratories as part of their business, with the aim of institutionalizing innovation. By engaging in research, firms attempted to gain security in the face of changing technology, to restrict competition and to control markets. The state, too, began to engage in scientific activities on a more formal basis, according to perceived national goals. Scientific agencies were established to deal with such areas as AGRICULTURE, the military, PUBLIC HEALTH, exploitation of natural RESOURCES and MANUFACTURING. Furthermore, new links, based on scientific research, were formed among universities, industries and governments, reflecting the importance being attached to R & D by society.

A significant proportion of national resources are now devoted to R & D by developed countries, and the level of funding has become a major policy concern. R & D is valued primarily as a source of technological change. However, little is known about the effectiveness of expenditures on R & D, in part because R & D encompasses activities with a wide range of goals, is found in many areas (eg, medical, military, SPACE) and is pursued for many purposes (eg, health and welfare, prestige, security and the advancement of knowledge). Hence, aggregate measures of R & D, such as the ratio of gross expenditures on R & D to gross domestic product, are very difficult to interpret. Another factor is our lack of knowledge about the efficiency of R & D systems. A third area of difficulty is that the effectiveness of R & D is measured in terms of social and economic consequences to which many factors besides R & D-induced technology contribute. For example, INDUSTRIAL RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT (ie, R & D devoted to economic objectives) is performed with the expectation that it will contribute to economic growth, by improving products and processes or developing new ones. Yet the exact role of industrial R & D is difficult to substantiate because many other factors, including market forces, management and labour skills, and financing, play an important part in determining whether the results of industrial R & D will lead to economic growth. In fact, R & D costs are usually a small fraction of the total costs of launching a new product or process.

Although much remains to be learned about R & D and especially its economics, some of its features have been identified. Expenditures on R & D are concentrated in the most economically developed countries, with the US spending by far the most. In all these countries governments provide extensive support, funding their own work and a high proportion of university R & D, and also contributing significantly to industrial R & D. Universities tend to focus their activities on pure research and on training scientists and engineers, performing very little development work. Industries, because of the high risks and uncertainties involved in R & D, devote most of their efforts to development and, within this area, to short-term improvements. Nearly all industrial R & D is devoted to capital and intermediate goods, not consumer goods. Industrial R & D expenditures are heavily concentrated in a few industries (AEROSPACE, ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING, chemicals, ELECTRONICS and scientific instruments). Large firms undertake most industrial R & D but many smaller ones are equally research intensive. The determinants of research intensity are difficult to identify and evaluate because of differences between industries and the lack of proper data.

The history of scientific research and development in Canada has barely been examined. Some studies have been devoted to federal government activities, in particular those of the NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL; however, much less work has been done on university research, and practically none on industrial R & D. Nevertheless the general historical outlines may still be sketched. The Canadian government established scientific agencies in the 19th century to deal with primary industries such as MINING, agriculture, FORESTRY and FISHERIES. The support and organization of scientific and industrial research in Canada gained momentum in the early decades of the 20th century, when a movement arose promoting such research. The movement was both a reaction to similar efforts in other industrialized countries, in particular following the outbreak of WWI, and a response to developments within Canada. Many Canadian universities attempted to improve and expand their science and ENGINEERING programs, to foster graduate studies and promote the ideal of research. The federal government founded the NRC in 1916 to encourage R & D in Canada. The ALBERTA RESEARCH COUNCIL was formed in 1921; the ONTARIO RESEARCH FOUNDATION in 1928; and other provincial RESEARCH organizations followed, especially after WWII.

In Canadian industry, the turn of the century witnessed a trend towards industrial concentration, specialization, and the growing dominance of large corporations, all of which fostered the emergence of industrial R & D. The CANADIAN MANUFACTURERS' ASSOCIATION was an important advocate of increased R & D in Canada. Several firms, such as Shawinigan Chemicals Ltd and Riordon Pulp and Paper, engaged in research. The amount of industrial R & D expanded very rapidly following WWI: approximately 37 Canadian firms had research laboratories in 1917-18; by 1939 there were 998 industrial laboratories. The exponential rate of growth of gross expenditures on R & D after WWII reflects the rapid development of R & D activities in Canada. Accompanying this increase in the late 1960s and 1970s was a widespread concern about the lack of an explicit SCIENCE POLICY and about the performance of industrial innovation in Canada. As a result, the federal government created a number of study and advisory groups, among them the SCIENCE COUNCIL OF CANADA (est 1966) and the Ministry of State for Science and Technology (1971).

R & D funding in Canada has consistently been among the lowest in major industrialized countries, although the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development classifies Canada as a medium R & D country. The major concern about the state of R & D in Canada, aside from its level of funding, has been its distribution. Here, the dominant problem has been industrial R & D. Critics have argued (often without much understanding of the role of government in science) that in the past the federal government overemphasized basic research to the detriment of development and spent too much of its R & D funds intramurally. Universities have also been criticized for being too insulated from the needs of business. In the late 1960s, and especially in the 1970s, the federal government began to take some steps towards contracting out R & D, supporting R & D performed by industry, and establishing links to foster the transfer of ideas and technology from government and university to industry. Industry's funding and performance of R & D has also been a source of considerable unease. Both are held to be too low and, thus, to affect the Canadian economy adversely. There has been much debate over the role of FOREIGN INVESTMENT in truncating industrial R & D in Canada. Foreign subsidiaries are said to decrease the amount of research in Canada and to increase reliance on foreign technology; others argue it is unlikely that Canada would have been able to achieve the growth rates it did without subsidiaries; and, through them, Canada gains invisible inflows of technology. The evidence for either of these views is mixed and, although it does now appear that Canadian-owned firms are more research intensive than their foreign-owned counterparts, it is still not known if this situation is the result of ownership or of other factors, such as structural differences within industries.

Milestones in Canadian R & D between 1980 and 1989 included improved design of ocean drilling platforms; advances in telecommunications technology; the establishment of the Canadian Astronomical Data Centre in 1986 to capture data from the Hubble Space Telescope; and exploration of laser technology for improved open-heart surgery. Milestones between 1990 and 2000 included transgenic wheat; bone-building therapy for osteoporosis; biotreatment of contaminated soils; stroke therapy; improvements to newsprint production; designer antibodies for cancer therapy; and a new rail-grinding technique.


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