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Why Vision Matters; or How to Lead in Science

October 17, 2016
By: 
Paul Dufour
Fellow and Adjunct Professor
ISSP, University of Ottawa

Coming up to its first anniversary in power, the Trudeau administration is coping with many consultations and challenges. This high expectations path forward is uncertain even for this majority government.

In the science, technology and innovation space, much is underway. After all, this is a government that promised to “value science and treat scientists with respect” following the antediluvian Harper era. The first few days in power of the Trudeau regime had two ministers declare that government scientists could now speak to the media without cumbersome filters; though whether this has been applied across the board with new guidelines remains unclear. The long-form census was re-established with a high return rate, though the Chief Statistician has since resigned arguing that Shared Services Canada ham-handed attempts to centralize all information technology services across government has compromised Statistics Canada's ability to fulfil its mandate.  Funding for research got a boost in the first budget and some of the Harper programs (CFREF for example) were followed through with announcements; but changes in the CIHR peer review process led to a major controversy within elements of the health research community requiring the Health Minister to weigh in (never a healthy thing). Canada’s premier public research institution, the NRC, celebrating its Centennial, has had a controversial President replaced with a fixer from inside the bureaucracy, presumably to help tackle the troubles at the temple. And the announcement by the government of 11 new CERCs for a new competition to once more try to address the gender equity gap has been launched ---this time with feeling.

In short, things may have appeared sunnier, but some clouds have rolled over the knowledge landscape.

Along the way, the science minister has had her own mandate issues to address. A chief science officer (make that scientist) is to be appointed with a still undefined role and a fundamental science review is underway with a high powered advisory group. A loosely- shaped innovation agenda is being promulgated by the senior Minister responsible for science and innovation (always helpful to remember what Canada’s first science minister said in 1971: —“as politicians we have a major responsibility to articulate what innovation is, to other politicians and to our electors.”)

A data driven exercise to inform this agenda is well underway with work by the Council of Canadian Academies as well as within the holdover confidential advisory body from the previous government. Gender equity and greater participation with the next generation entrepreneurial talent is a key part of these policy platforms not to mention renewed attempts to embrace traditional knowledge and education within the country’s STI ecosystem. And rebranding of Canada as a key player in global science and innovation remains paramount, especially concerning clean energy and research excellence in key areas. All of this has brought some good will from the research and entrepreneurial community, in part demonstrated by the enormous number of submissions provided through the consultations, both traditional and via social media.

But----will it last. Much depends on leadership of course. As Trudeau himself has said regarding his progressive mantra : It’s not hard to see how the connections between computing, information, robotics, and biotechnologies could deliver spectacular progress. It’s also not hard to imagine how it could produce mass unemployment and greater inequality. Technology itself will not determine the future we get. Our choices will. Leadership will.

Back in 1983, his father, Pierre, said much the same thing: the government must be more than a patron of technological enterprise, more than a source of funding, for even more fundamental is the government's responsibility to help manage the impact of technological change, and to act as an honest broker between competing forces in the movement towards a technologically-sophisticated society. Government's preoccupation must be to ensure that the benefits of this revolution outweigh its costs.

So what can one expect in this hippish leadership centred on respect for science, using evidence to inform decision-making and support of reliable knowledge—one that has yet to define a compelling vision with Canadians?

For starters, Canada has a birthday coming up. Initiatives are underway to celebrate and signal achievements; and with good reason. Science has been a strong contributor to nation-building. Any effective pan-Canadian approach to a future vision for the country will require a careful re-engagement with all levels of government.

Almost thirty years ago, in 1987, the Council of Science and Technology Ministers (representing all of the provinces, territories, and the federal government) tabled a discussion paper to the First Ministers Conference on Canada’s research and development effort. In it, they argued for a stronger industrial R&D effort; excellence in fundamental research (supporting the then proposed concept of national networks of centres of excellence); an orientation to science and technology in the Canadian culture (building on the Science Council of Canada’s path-breaking report on science education in the schools); and ensuring a greater level of consultation between the levels of government, industry and the academic community on proposed new S&T initiatives. The Council also had a cross-country consortium of advisory groups to assist it-- the National Forum of Science and Technology Advisory Councils. That forum had a mandate to "examine issues affecting Canada`s ability to develop and apply science and technology; and to formulate advice to influence Canadian's national and provincial science policies for the enhancement of the Canadian economy." All of this has since gone by the way-side.

Today, a new window of opportunity presents itself in exploring a national approach to the science and innovation agenda. Looking to 2017, there are a number of ventures underway designed to fill gaps in knowledge governance system as well as stimulate and engage with an increasingly knowledge-thirsty society. These, if properly channelled and supported, will help shape a more effective public dialogue and further action in science and innovation. A hopeful trend is emerging in Canada where neophobia is no longer the watchword, and heady institutional experimentation is underway; much of it from bright minds leveraging new partnerships and unique business models as governments struggle to meet the expectations of their citizens. Leadership and choices are indeed to be the watchwords. We look forward to the PM’s forthcoming speech and action agenda as he seeks common ground with his counterparts across the country on the vision of why knowledge matters.