Statistics Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Statistics Canada’s life sciences statistics program: Future directions and challenges

Warning View the most recent version.

Archived Content

Information identified as archived is provided for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It is not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards and has not been altered or updated since it was archived. Please "contact us" to request a format other than those available.

by Chuck McNiven

Data collected through Statistics Canada’s life sciences statistics program indicate that Canada has a sizable biotechnology sector in comparison with larger countries in Europe. This program regularly provides assistance to other countries, which view Canada as a world leader in the development of biotechnology statistics. This article notes the future directions and challenges facing the program.

About the author

Top of page


Over the past decade Statistics Canada’s biotechnology surveys have provided a clear, consistent and comparable picture of the biotechnology sector in Canada. This is unique in the world. Biotechnology, along with information and communications technologies (ICT) and nanotechnology, has been labelled an ‘enabling technology’. Such technologies were identified by the federal government in Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada's Advantage (2007) as “underpinning many of the most transformative advances in science and technology.” These advances form the foundation for opportunities to build strategic advantages for Canada in a competitive global marketplace. The potential impact of these enabling technologies touches all four of the government’s stated priorities: environment, energy, health and life sciences, and ICT.

Two of these enabling technologies—biotechnology and nanotechnology1—are also ‘emerging’ technologies: their scientific foundations are comparatively recent and their impacts have not yet been realized. Emerging technologies share a number of characteristics but, most notably, they have a broad range of potential applications and their incorporation into market production systems is in the earliest stages. Emerging technologies are assumed to follow a path from discovery through incremental improvement to dissemination as they move out of the laboratories and into the factory. However, this path is modified to meet more stringent regulatory obligations that apply to all human health products and to any genetically modified life form that will be released into the environment. These technologies continue to be actively developed in university laboratories but have also begun the shift into the marketplace with new products for the treatment of disease, production of biofuels, and new techniques for environmental remediation for a variety of traditional resource industry activities.

Top of page


Evolving program

Statistics Canada’s life sciences statistics program, based on the Emerging Technologies Survey, has evolved from a biotechnology focus and now provides measures of other science-based activities and their transition to the marketplace for these priority areas, through statistics on biotechnologies, nanotechnologies, bioproducts, and functional foods and natural health products. This evolution enables an understanding of the current state of the sector and its technologies. However, if the surveys are continued over time, we could determine the path of development of emerging technology in Canada and the impacts of government policies on its firms. By providing regular, consistent snapshots of biotechnology and other technologies, Statistics Canada’s life sciences surveys are an important means of measuring these impacts over time. The Emerging Technologies Survey provides the capacity to collect similar statistics for bioproduct, functional food and nanotechnology firms as well.

Data have been used in a wide variety of forums by stakeholders in public, private and academic sectors. Researchers from the academic community rely on biotechnology databases and the knowledge of Statistics Canada staff in support of their research.

Monitoring progress

Biotechnology is an important transformative technology, and some biotechnology applications, existing or potential, raise important and legitimate public concerns. This makes policy choices more difficult to make and to sell. Political support is uneven across capitals. Meanwhile, as exemplified by the number of firms participating and the level of investment in research and development (R&D), biotechnology keeps making progress and is diffusing through the economy. This requires monitoring. Biotechnology increases our knowledge of living organisms and allows for the transformation of existing processes. However, and more importantly, it also allows for a substitution of inputs toward the use of biomass, a renewable resource, therefore with a potential to also become sustainable.

With a progressive switch toward more use of biomass, new product and process innovation may have significant substitution effects in the economy. As is often observed, such effects trigger losses in employment and capital in some industrial sectors and the potential for job creation and capital formation in others. These effects require monitoring if countries wish to minimize losses and maximize benefits to their population. An important motive for the monitoring of these changes is the need to minimize the costs associated with this shift.

Other member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) are in the process of building biotechnology statistics programs and some data are now available to permit comparisons between countries.

Canada’s biotechnology sector

Table 1 indicates that Canada has a sizable biotechnology sector in comparison with larger countries in Europe, such as France and Germany. In addition, the Canadian biotechnology sector is comparatively R&D-intensive, with a ratio of sales to R&D that is lower than all but Germany, while the United States and France report higher levels of sales per unit of R&D.

Table 1 Key biotechnology statistics from selected OECD member states, 2003. Opens a new browser window.

Table 1
Key biotechnology statistics from selected OECD member states, 2003

Statistics Canada has been very active on the international scene: for example, chairing the OECD ad hoc groups on biotechnology and nanotechnology statistics; leading in the development of internationally comparable statistics for biotechnology; and developing bioproducts and nanotechnology. The Statistics Canada biotechnology statistics program regularly provides assistance to other countries, which view Canada as a leader in the world in the development of biotechnology statistics.

Historically, Statistics Canada’s life sciences statistics program was funded solely through the Canadian Biotechnology Secretariat, a co-ordinating agency that is now defunct. Agriculture and Agrifood Canada continues to support work on bioproducts and functional foods. In order to continue to produce statistics on biotechnology and nanotechnology, Statistics Canada is seeking other funding sources.

Top of page


Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 2006. Biotechnology Statistics. p.41–43.

Government of Canada. 2007. Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage. Ottawa.

Adapted from the working paper, "Selected Results of the Biotechnology Use and Development Survey 2005", by Charlene Lonmo and Chuck McNiven.

About the author

Chuck McNiven is with the Science, Innovation and Electronic Information Division (SIEID) at Statistics Canada. For more information about this article, please contact


  1. While ICTs have transformed society and will continue to have profound impacts, both economic and social, as the ever-increasing power of computing systems is combined with more sophisticated software for specialized and general applications, they are sufficiently well developed that they are no longer truly ‘emerging.’ Biotechnology and nanotechnology, by contrast, are in much earlier stages of development.