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A Federal S&T budget time capsule- science, skills and innovation

February 23, 2018
By: 
Paul Dufour
Fellow and Adjunct Professor
Institute for Science, Society and Policy, University of Ottawa

Last week, the current federal Finance Minister indicated that it is time to invest back in science, skills and research in the coming budget. Indeed, the knowledge community is pumped up by the expectations of responding to some elements of the Naylor report along with the newly announced, regionally distributed, industry-led superclusters with $950M of taxpayers money.

Looking back, it is important to recognize that Canada has never had an explicit science or innovation budget. To the extent that knowledge investments make their way into fiscal planning, they are largely embedded in thematic policy narratives. So when the Liberal government announced a ‘strong economy and secure society’ as a leitmotif of the 1998-99 budget, the planned investments for the knowledge, skills and learning that Canadians needed were centred on better jobs and a better standard of living in the 21st century. In its subsequent budget, ‘building today for a better tomorrow’, the government invested over $1.8 billion in 1999-2000 to make reaching these goals more accessible and more affordable; including a promise that was to include over $300 million a year in Canada Millennium Scholarships starting in 2000.

In 1998-99, the Liberals led by PM Jean Chrétien had started a climb back from the program review cuts of the mid-90s. A $800M Canada Foundation for Innovation had been established in 1997-- the 1999 budget was to augment this by $200M to help CFI meet the demands for research infrastructure. The federal granting councils had been restored to their 1994-95 funding levels and an additional $405 M was invested, with health research receiving more support, especially for the Aboriginal population.

The NRC, a perennial favorite of government funding, received more funding; $55M went to government departments and agencies for biotechnology research and the dissemination of knowledge was enhanced with new funding through CANARIE, SchoolNet and GeoConnections to make available integrated data about Canada’s geography, environment, resources and people (building on an Information Highway Advisory Council report of three years earlier). More funding to the Networks of Centres of Excellence with an additional $90M was announced; and a commitment of $430 M over three years was made to the Canadian Space Agency with a promise to stabilize funding at a level of $300M annually.

To a large extent, this movement to re-invest in knowledge had been signalled in the 1996 Science and Technology for the New Century strategy. That strategy, developed over an extensive consultation period, outlined several goals such as sustainable job creation and improved quality of life along with advancement of knowledge. The plan also examined the federal government’s core S&T activities and outlined a new governance system based on mechanisms for receiving expert external advice; improved interdepartmental coordination and more effective management, along with operating principles to guide departments and agencies in performing and investing in S&T.

The 1998-1999 progress report on the federal S&T strategy -- Building Momentum- highlighted accomplishments as Canada prepared for the Millennium. Global climate change was on the agenda with a pan-Canadian effort to implement the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions. The governance issues were being addressed with an Advisory Council on S&T chaired by the PM and an internal advisory group for federal government science, the Council of Science and Technology Advisors, and a Canadian Biotechnology Strategy had been renewed. Foresight capability within the federal apparatus was also being expanded via the Policy Research Initiative.

These measures over a four to five year period led to a renaissance for Canadian research and innovation. New experiments such as the 2000 Canada Research Chairs, Genome Canada, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, all later helped address various policy gaps, not to mention the concerns over a brain drain of skills and talent.

Anxiety-- as it was in the years leading to 2000-- is still with us as we turn the corner on Canada’s 150th anniversary into an uncertain, fractured world where Canada will host the G7 Summit in June 2018. The overlay of diversity, gender equity, evidence-informed policy and inclusive innovation and growth, will be the canvas for the efforts to come.

Technology’s rapid advance and its disruptive effects from the early Internet years has led to cautionary perspectives. As the Deputy Governor of the Bank of Canada said recently : We know that technological advances are key to improving an economy’s potential to grow. The current wave of innovation—digitization and automation—promises to raise trend growth in the economy even more. However---- technological advances can leave people behind. And further,

There is compelling evidence that innovation has been an important reason behind rising income. Research also finds that rising inequality can result in weaker and less-stable macroeconomic outcomes. This places us, as policymakers, at a crossroads. Do we choose to stay on the same road and repeat the past? Or do we apply fresh thinking to policy and choose a new road where innovation delivers even stronger and more-inclusive growth?

Indeed, some intractable issues with difficult choices face us all today. Long-term commitments are required. We look forward to continued leadership from all sectors beyond the budget next week. Clearly, Canadians should be engaging actively in these choices with the next knowledge-thirsty and tech savvy generation.