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Canada ranks fourth in the world for the quality of its scientific research, according to a survey of thousands of top international scientists that was conducted as part of an in-depth report to be released Thursday.

The report assesses the state of science and technology in Canada and was done by the Council of Canadian Academies. It included the survey of 5,000 researchers, authors of the most widely cited scientific papers in the world, which put Canada behind only the United States, Britain and Germany. By a second measure – how often Canadian research papers are cited by other scientists – the report placed Canada sixth in the world.

But we are not as strong when it comes to exploiting discoveries. "Despite producing 4.1 per cent of all scientific papers, Canada holds only 1.7 per cent of patents," the report said.

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The Council of Canadian Academies is an independent, not-for-profit corporation that gets funding from the federal government. It put together an expert panel to assess the health of science and technology in Canada at the request of the Minister of Industry. The panel looked at research done at universities and non-profit and government sectors, but not in the private sector. Commercial R&D spending in Canada has been falling since 2001, relative to the size of the economy, to levels well below the average of Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.

Not all the findings were rosy. Research on the environment and natural resources, identified in a 2006 report as Canadian strengths, have not seen the same improvement as other areas. As well, half of Canadian science and technology experts who were surveyed said Canada has lost ground in the past five years.

But the overall picture was very positive. There is considerable evidence that Canada is highly competitive in science and technology, with particular strengths in a number of fields. Canada is able to attract high-quality researchers from abroad, the report said, and there is evidence of a net migration of researchers to the country between 1997 and 2010.

Between 2005 and 2010, Canada produced almost 60 per cent more papers than during the previous five years, the only G7 country to increase its output above the world average. "Canadian S&T, within the scope of this assessment, is healthy and growing in both output and impact," the 18-member panel concluded.

The Conservative government has been criticized by researchers for not providing adequate funding for basic, curiosity-driven research. But Science Minister Gary Goodyear has argued that Ottawa has invested heavily in innovation, with a focus on the successful commercialization of research.

The panel was chaired by Eliot Phillipson, the former president and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and was asked not only to provide a general assessment, but to identify scientific disciplines in which Canada excels and to find out how these strengths are distributed across the country.

Canada ranks well in the following areas: clinical medicine; information and communication technologies; physics and astronomy; psychology and cognitive sciences. Canada also punches well above its weight in historical studies and research on the visual and performing arts.

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The panel also found found that Canada is a world leader in research on venereal diseases and dermatology, as well as anatomy, astrophysics, general and internal medicine, nuclear and particle physics and zoology. Canada is also a leader in studying business and management, criminology and classics.

As for the future, the survey of Canadian experts identified a number of areas in which Canada is well-placed to become a global leader. They include: personalized medicine, tissue engineering and digital media. Nanotechnologies and wireless technology may also be emerging areas of strength.

Across the country, Ontario, Quebec and B.C. are the "major drivers" of Canadian science and technology, accounting for 97 per cent of scientific papers.

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