Key Messages

  • Quebec and Ontario rank sixth and seventh, respectively, but earn only C grades given the very strong performance by leading countries, Finland and Denmark.
  • The remaining eight provinces earn D– grades, ranking below the poorest-performing peer country, Netherlands.
  • Researchers in Ontario, Quebec, B.C., and most peer countries are much more likely to be employed in industry than are researchers in the other seven provinces.

Why are researchers important to innovation?

There is an important link between research and innovation. Although research activity does not necessarily lead to new innovations, and although certain types of innovation (e.g., ICT adoption) depend less on research than other types (e.g., ICT development), much innovation nevertheless depends on research conducted in the public and private sectors. Researchers are an essential part of that activity.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), researchers are “professionals engaged in the conception or creation of new knowledge, products, processes, methods and systems, as well as in the management of the projects concerned.”1 They play lead roles in, for example, developing new technologies, creating and testing new products, engineering new processes, assessing market potential for products and services, and managing research and development (R&D) projects from conception to commercialization.

Therefore, researchers provide a useful indication of both innovation capacity and activity in an economy. In terms of capacity, the more researchers employed, the better prepared public and private sector organizations are to initiate and complete complex research projects that could lead to innovations. In terms of activity, the more researchers engaged in R&D, the more likely it is that research that could lead to innovation is actually occurring.

How are researchers measured?

The report card indicator of researchers engaged in R&D is measured as the number of full-time equivalent researchers employed for every 1,000 individuals employed in a province or country. Full-time equivalent “is a measure of the time actually devoted to research and development.”2 Conventionally, a full-time position entails working full-time hours for a full year. If an employee spends half her time on R&D and half on something else, she would count as 0.5 full-time equivalent. Similarly, if five people each worked 1 day per week on R&D for a year, together they would count as 1 full-time equivalent.

The indicator includes individuals classified as “researchers” but excludes those classified as “technicians” and “other R&D personnel.” Researchers are defined as scientists and engineers “engaged in the conception or creation of new knowledge, products, processes, methods and systems” and includes managers “engaged in the planning and management of the scientific and technical aspects of a researcher’s work.”3

We include researchers employed in government, higher education, and business. Focusing on only the business sector would create a measurement bias against those provinces and countries whose innovation ecosystems place more emphasis on research conducted in government and higher-education labs and facilities. We calculate the rate as the number of researchers per 1,000 individuals employed, rather than per total population, because we are interested in capturing how research-intensive the employed labour force is, rather than the research capacity of the population more broadly.

How do the provinces rank relative to international peers?

Quebec and Ontario rank sixth and seventh, respectively, relative to international peers on the researchers indicator—a drop from fourth and fifth in the previous report card. Because the top country, Finland (15 researchers per 1,000 employed), performs so well, Quebec (10.9) and Ontario (10.8) manage to earn only C grades. Canada ranks 12th (or 10th among the 16 peer countries) but earns a D grade.

With 8.4 researchers per 1,000 employed, B.C. has increased its researcher rate, but because it performs below the worst-performing country—Netherlands (8.8)—it falls from a D to a D– and ranks 19th overall. The remaining seven provinces continue to earn D– grades and take up the bottom seven positions in the international rankings. At the bottom of the rankings is P.E.I., whose 3.6 researchers per 1,000 employed is less than a quarter of Finland’s rate and less than half the Canadian average (9.5).

How do the provinces rank relative to each other?

Quebec and Ontario are the highest-ranking provinces and score C grades. With only 8.4 researchers per 1,000 employed, the third-ranked province, B.C., earns only a D–. This is lower than the Canadian rate of 9.5 researchers per 1,000 employed. The remaining seven provinces also earn D– grades, with researchers ranging from only 3.6 (P.E.I.) to 6.6 (Alberta) per 1,000 employed.

Has provincial performance on researchers engaged in R&D changed over time?

Almost all provinces have more researchers per 1,000 employed than in 2000. Only Nova Scotia saw a small decline—entirely due to a drop in the last year for which data are available (2013). Between 2000 and 2012, however, Nova Scotia increased its researchers per 1,000 employees. B.C. saw especially strong growth, rising from 5.2 to 8.4 researchers between 2000 and 2013. Researchers per 1,000 employed in Newfoundland and Labrador rose from 3.5 in 2000 to 5.6 in 2013.

Overall, the number of researchers per 1,000 employed increased by 2.2 in Canada (from 7.3 to 9.5 per 1,000 employed). This suggests that innovation capacity in the provinces, and Canada as a whole, has improved over the past 15 years.

At the same time, however, the number of researchers among international peers grew by a much larger factor of over 3 researchers per 1,000 employed, on average. So, most provinces lost ground relative to international peers even as their rates increased. Growth was especially strong in Denmark, which more than doubled its rate from 7.1 researchers per 1,000 employed in 2001 to 15 in 2015, improved from a D to an A grade, and moved from 11th to second place among international peers and provinces.

Despite modest growth, the seven lowest-ranking provinces have remained consistent D– performers relative to international peers since 2000. B.C. had been a consistent D performer until it fell to a D– in the current report card. Quebec and Ontario perform no better than they did in 2000. However, Ontario managed to earn a B grade for three years—from 2007 to 2009—before returning to the C it now holds, while Quebec was a B grade performer for five years—from 2007 to 2011—before settling back to a C in the current ranking.

Where are researchers employed?

Previous analysis by the Conference Board shows that Ontario and Quebec have the highest proportions of researchers employed in business, at 61 per cent and 59 per cent, respectively. By contrast, only 29 per cent of researchers in Saskatchewan, 32 per cent in Nova Scotia, and 33 per cent both in Newfoundland and Labrador and in New Brunswick work in the business sector.

Although research performed in higher-education and government facilities is critically important to innovation, jurisdictions with higher proportions of researchers active in industry are likely to be better at transforming ideas into new products and services and at implementing new processes, marketing methods, and business models.

Among international peers, the largest share of researchers is employed in industry, rather than government or higher education. On average, 56 per cent of researchers are employed by business in peer countries, ranging from a high of 74 per cent in Japan to a low of 35 per cent in the United Kingdom. Overall, Canada matches the international norm, with 57 per cent of researchers employed in business.

Do the provinces lack researchers or research positions?

That so many provinces perform poorly on this indicator is likely a result of both the supply of and demand for—specifically, industry demand for—researchers.

Overall, Canada has a relatively high proportion of university graduates and thus a good foundation for developing researchers. Five provinces earn As or Bs on university attainment in the education and skills report card, while Canada as a whole earns a B and ranks seventh among international peers.

But Canada and the provinces lag international peers in terms of graduates of advanced research programs—specifically, doctoral programs. The five provinces with the lowest shares of researchers—Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and P.E.I.—also have the lowest shares of PhD graduates. By contrast, the top performers on the researcher indicator—Finland, Denmark, and Sweden—are also among the top-ranked on PhD graduates, earning grades of A (Finland and Sweden) or B (Denmark) and taking three of the top seven positions. In short, while Canada has a strong record on undergraduate education, the country lags international peers in graduating people from the higher levels of education more often associated with research occupations.

At the same time, other evidence points to the role of employer demand in explaining researcher rates. Not surprisingly, the share of researchers is correlated with R&D spending in provinces and peer countries. Jurisdictions with higher R&D spending employ more researchers, while those with lower R&D spending employ fewer researchers. The top-ranking countries on researchers per 1,000 employed—Finland, Denmark, and Sweden—are also among the top five in R&D spending (business R&Dpublic R&D). By contrast, the bottom-ranking jurisdictions on researchers are among the bottom in R&D spending.

As a whole, Canada employs more researchers than its R&D spending would predict (owing to a more labour-intensive, rather than capital-intensive, approach to R&D), though it earns only a D relative to international peers on the share of researchers.4 Even this labour-intensive approach to R&D, together with a low average researcher wage relative to international peers, cannot compensate for the country’s exceptionally low levels of business R&D.5 The demand for researchers simply is not there.

How can provinces improve?

Provinces are unlikely to do better on the researcher report card until R&D activity, including business R&D and public R&D, increases.

Also, many employers still need to be convinced that hiring advanced researchers can contribute to better performance. Many employers continue to hold negative views about advanced researchers, particularly PhDs—such as that they work too slowly and lack teamwork and communication skills for professional environments. Yet evidence increasingly shows that organizations that work with advanced researchers subsequently develop more robust research and innovation programs and achieve better business performance overall.6

For example, employers in Canada who have worked with master’s or PhD students through paid internship programs organized by the national organization Mitacs have seen improvements across a range of innovation and related business outcomes. Two-thirds of surveyed companies report that they have already commercialized—or will soon—the result of research projects conducted with Mitacs research interns. A quarter of respondents report that they have hired research interns into newly created permanent research positions, while 40 per cent note that they invested $100,000 of new money into R&D as a result of working with a Mitacs intern—including 10 per cent that invested more than $500,000 of new R&D money.7

This suggests not only that increasing R&D spending can stimulate greater researcher employment, but also that working with researchers can stimulate new R&D spending—and that both outcomes contribute to more robust innovation potential. In that case, provinces should find ways to spark virtuous circles of rising R&D spending and researcher employment. The key will be to convince more employers to offer opportunities to researchers, giving researchers a chance to change misperceptions and make valuable contributions, and, simultaneously, to encourage more firms to increase R&D spending.


1    OECD, Frascati Manual (Paris: OECD, 2002), 93.

2    Statistics Canada, Research and Development Personnel.

3    Ibid.

4    Expert Panel on the State of Industrial R&D in Canada, The State of Industrial R&D in Canada (Ottawa: Council of Canadian Academies, 2013), 36–40.

5    For more on Canada’s low researcher wage relative to international peers, see Expert Panel on the State of Industrial R&D in Canada, The State of Industrial R&D in Canada, 37–39.

6    See Jessica Edge and Daniel Munro, Inside and Outside the Academy: Valuing and Preparing PhDs for Careers (Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2015).

7    Mitacs, Mitacs Accelerate Outcomes: Industry Partner Survey (Ottawa: Mitacs, January 2015).