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Calling for a 21st-century STI strategy

This article appeared in the March 13th issue of Research Money.
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“We cannot be so blinded by the urgency of our problems that we take for granted how important, how powerful the combination of curiosity and reason really is. That is the tradition of science.” — Mike Lazaridis, The Power of Ideas, 2010

In January, the federal government published its consultation document Seizing Canada’s Moment (SCM) on the next federal science, technology and innovation (STI) strategy. In February, it released Economic Action Plan 2014, which includes several commitments to research and development. Curiously, none of these are referred to in SCM, leading one to wonder which is the cart, and which is the horse.

Concern with business innovation is palpable in both documents, but there is little reference to innovation in the larger public interest. In a recent Environics poll, 73% of respondents considered the top priority of government science to be science in the public interest, including protecting public health, safety and the environment.

Yet federal public interest science has been steadily eroded through the shuttering or termination of federal S&T institutions and programs, and restrictive communication polices that hamper the dissemination of scientific information among scientists and to the public. Federal intramural R&D spending continues to fall, and in EAP 2014 federal budgets have been frozen.

The existence of STI capacity within Canada’s knowledge ecosystem was explicitly recognized in 1987, when federal, provincial and territorial ministers signed the National Science and Technology Policy, which outlined six national STI goals. Federal-provincial-territorial cooperation is crucial for business and public interest innovation, but both EAP 2014 and SCM are silent on how the government proposes to do so.

Both documents claim to recognize the importance of discovery research. EAP 2014 includes an apparently untargeted $46 million for the three granting councils— an increase of 1.7%. What proportion of EAP 2014’s proposed $1.36 billion (over 10 years) Canada First Research Excellence Fund will go to discovery research is unknown.

By comparison, US Budget 2014 increased funding to the basic research agencies by an average of 4%, reflecting president Obama’s understanding that “the nation that goes all-in on innovation today will own the global economy tomorrow. … That’s why Congress should undo the damage done by last year’s cuts to basic research so we can unleash the next great American discovery.”

Finally, both documents say little about the need to realign federal funding and decision-making structures to better address the burgeoning importance of interdisciplinary science and enhance the role of science in government decision-making.

What should a new STI strategy include?

First, it should explicitly underscore that public interest innovation is as important as business innovation. That recognition should, in the short term, be reflected in restored funding to the major research councils, a review of government science to assess where public science capacity is eroding, and the development and Cabinet approval of a set of principles for guiding decisions about the allocation of federal research support to different points of the knowledge cycle, from research to technological innovation. We further suggest that government research agencies and departments adopt a public outreach mandate to better communicate the value of public science with Canadians.

Second, it should develop a plan to engage governments at all levels in an updated national policy that identifies national STI priorities and mechanisms by which these might be collaboratively pursued. Some provinces have already developed their own STI strategies—a more seamless pan-Canadian approach would enhance decision-making in the allocation of increasingly scarce strategic resources.

Third, the strategy should consider ways to enhance the role of science in government decision-making. We suggest that a Parliamentary Office for S&T (POST) be established to assist parliamentarians in understanding the scientific information relevant to decision-making as well as provide oversight on the use of scientific evidence in public policy. Elected officials can only make informed decisions if they know and understand the current state of research and what is likely on the horizon. Parliamentary fellowships and pairing schemes — such as currently available in the US and UK for science and engineering students and researchers — should be made available to provide youth with opportunities to contribute to public policy as well as to learn how complex decision-making takes place.

Fourth, an independent assessment should be undertaken with a view to improve the adequacy and effectiveness of the interaction among the three granting councils in responding to the emerging global knowledge revolution. As a World Economic Forum panel recently noted, scientific research is increasingly more diverse, more networked, more impactful, more popular and requires more money from more sources, both public and private.

Not only do individual researchers increasingly cooperate on projects across countries, research agencies are also collaborating worldwide on issues such as research integrity, big data, emerging pandemics and the brain. These trends are all impacting institutional, project-based, research excellence and cost-shared research ventures.

Given the importance of STI to the well-being of Canadians, we suggest that this — indeed the entire STI innovation file — be overseen by a full-time, senior, Cabinet- level minister for Science and Innovation supported by a well-resourced national science advisor to help bring about a fuller integration of the government’s S&T activity.

Finally, we suggest that the strategy consider establishing an independent science audit or report card that would provide regular updates and data through social media to Canadians on the impact of federal investments in STI with respect to both business and public interest innovation. We believe that seizing the (STI) moment requires a federal strategy that includes elements such as those proposed here if, collectively, we are to maximize the benefits to Canadians of federal investment in science and innovation.

Scott Findlay is an associate professor of biology at the University of Ottawa and co-founder of Evidence for Democracy. Paul Dufour is a fellow and adjunct professor at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa.

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