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An Ottawa-based think-tank says Canada’s innovation record has improved but it still ranks only ninth among 16 peer countries and corporate spending on research has fallen to the bottom of the list.

Patryk Galka/iStockphoto

Canada gets slightly higher marks in the latest report card on global innovation, but it remains a laggard in certain key measures and is no candidate for any gold stars.The Conference Board of Canada gives Canada a mediocre C grade, ranking it only ninth among 16 peer industrial countries, well behind the likes of class leaders Sweden, Denmark and Finland, each of which took home top marks. But Canada improved from its dismal D in the board's previous assessment, when it placed only 13th.

Some indicators have been changed from earlier report cards. The latest evaluation, for example, includes a new gauge designed to measure entrepreneurial ambition, in which Canada scored high marks. The country has also made a dramatic gain in venture capital investment, jumping to a B grade in 2013 (the latest year with available data) from a D in 2009.

Those findings "suggest that a healthier startup and entrepreneurial environment may be emerging, while peers in Europe struggle in these areas," the board said. But Canada remains at the back of the pack on such important factors as new patents and corporate spending on research and development, the board's report shows. "Not only has spending as a share of GDP decreased, so has total business R&D spending," the report said.

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While most of its peers are ramping up such activity, Canada is heading in the wrong direction. Although it still scores a B for public R&D expenditures, this too has also slipped in recent years as a share of GDP. Canada's labour productivity, another important marker, rated only a C grade.

On a brighter note, three provinces got solid B grades from the Conference Board, led by Ontario, which ranked fifth overall when placed on the list, just behind the United States and ahead of Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Quebec (eighth) and British Columbia (10th) also outperformed the national government. Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick will need remedial help. Both ranked at the bottom with D minuses. As for Alberta, it earned a C overall but an A+ for entrepreneurial ambition.

Experts have long criticized Canada's weak innovation record, which hurts its ability to compete effectively in global markets, makes it tougher to reduce the country's heavy reliance on resource exports and poses risks to its high standard of living.

A lack of homegrown research spending, complacency, strong risk aversion and the long-time reliance on natural resources (Australia, another major exporter of raw materials, ranked only 12th in the latest survey) have been cited in the past for the poor performance. If it's any consolation, Canada did finish ahead of Germany, Japan and Britain. Only Ireland was saddled with a lowly D this time around.

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