Why the governance –and funding– of Canada’s research ecosystem needs a 21st century blueprint

Published On: November 2022Categories: 2022 Conference editorials, Editorials


Paul Dufour



Institute for Science, Society, and Policy, University of Ottawa

Senior Fellow

Recipient of the CSPC LifeTime Achievement Award

Paul Dufour

Let’s be clear. The world is going to have to do something about climate change. So why not look at Canada as taking the lead, as having a competitive advantage? Why not develop Canada as the home of the newest technologies, building on strengths, looking to emerging trends in energy and production technologies? Some people are talking about the hydrogen
economy of the 21st Century? Why don’t we build on what we’ve achieved in fuel cells and invent the hydrogen-economy right here? What about manufacturing based on non-polluting, bioprocesses, renewable energy–solar, wind, biofuels, hydro–developed right here in Canada?
It’s the challenge of our generation to build on what’s gone before, to work together in common cause to take our nation to the next level..
(Allan Rock, Minister of Industry, Innovation and Learning Summit, Toronto, 19 November 2002)

The November 2002 Innovation and Learning Summit held twenty years ago in Toronto to move the yardsticks forward on an Innovation and Learning Strategy is perhaps worth underscoring today in the context of several ongoing policy and program consultations and reviews.

In 2002, the government was responding to another crisis one year after 9-11. Mobilizing science, research, security and health investments to respond to the various challenges from that crisis served to underscore the benefits of investing in the power of knowledge.

Two decades ago, Canada’s GERD-GDP ratio was 1.97—-one of its highest ever. Canada’s Innovation Strategy had one major goal: to have Canada recognized as one of the most innovative countries in the world. That meant investing in people, attracting highly skilled immigrants, investing in capital and attracting FDI while improving the overall innovation performance– hence a target of ranking among the top five countries in the world by the year 2010 and at least doubling the government spend in R&D, as well as developing a number of internationally recognized technology clusters. Canada had already begun to put in place unique and innovative STI programmes for addressing a new global knowledge economy– the CFI, Canada Research Chairs, Genome Canada, Millennium Scholarships, were just a few of these experiments.

The provinces and territories were mobilizing around new investments in science and innovation, including the funding of university research, following a major meeting of ministers responsible for research science and technology.

Canada had also established a high level Advisory Council on Science and Technology (ACST). Alan Rock, in his November 2002 Summit speech, flagged the two mandates he gave the Council membership:

First of all, to help us work toward the creation of a strategic framework for Canada’s research enterprises so we can agree on the broad goals of our investments in research so that when we get additional requests for funding as a government, we’ll have some framework within which to decide which investments would be most effective in advancing our strategic goals.
The second thing I asked them to do was to work with us to simplify and consolidate the research landscape. Is it too complicated? Are there too many sources of funding? Can they be consolidated? And can we make life easier for the researchers?– Our researchers are spending too much time filling out forms rather than developing new ideas and the ACST has agreed to
work with us in that task. The universities and colleges of this country are at the epicentre of the Innovation Strategy. It is on those campuses that we will develop the ideas and the processes that will enable us to lead the world.

In 2002, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology had examined peer review and the allocation of federal research funds arguing that there was a need for a more formalized mechanism for setting and modifying S&T policy, deciding on funding priorities, and ensuring that they were implemented. Such a framework needed to include a government-wide science advisory body and a Chief Scientific Advisor that would report directly to Parliament.

Furthermore, the Council of Science and Technology Advisors (CSTA) within government had issued guidelines accepted by the Cabinet to ensure the effective use of science and technology in government decision-making. Indeed, Health Canada had appointed its first chief scientist a year earlier.

If all of this sounds somewhat familiar, it should. Today, science advice and the use of sound evidence has been embedded in various parts of the government. Mandate letters to all Cabinet Ministers stress the need to respect scientists and value sound science and evidence –made all the more critical following the seminal role of knowledge and research in tackling the pandemic. A Chief Science Advisor is now into her second mandate, assisted by a creative Youth Council along with several chief scientists in line departments and agencies. A newly appointed advisory panel is exploring how to better “modernize the federal research funding ecosystem to maximize the impact of investments in both research excellence and downstream innovation”.

In the last federal budget, a proposed Canada Innovation and Investment Agency aims to “proactively work with new and established Canadian industries and businesses to help them make the investments they need to innovate, grow, create jobs, and be competitive in the changing global economy”. The National Research Council could clearly engage with such a proactive role as the debate for implementing this new experiment evolves.

Canada’s somewhat disjointed international STI approach to enhance more effective global partnerships needs a reboot, not only with the usual G7 partners, but to also tackle the SDGs and climate change with the Global South. Further, an Indo-Pacific strategy is being developed that will create a new pivot for our global knowledge and diplomacy presence. A CCA expert panel is now exploring options around some of the good practices globally in this arena.

We still have other gaps.There is no permanent position for a Chief Science Advisor nested in Parliament, nor a pan-Canadian advisory council to assist the work of the office. But perhaps the government will move to implement some of the key related recommendations of the two recent talent and innovation reports from the House of Commons Standing Committee on Science and Research.

Putting together coherent policy actions and sound vision in support of science, technology and innovation with all Canadians has always been no easy task in the federation. It’s been some time since Canada had any form of joined-up science and innovation strategy. Indeed, Canada has had more than its share of studies, reviews and consultations over its own approach to research and innovation. It has no well-crafted organizational ecology. Sustainability remains elusive. it suffers from CPA–Continuous Partial Attention. Urgency is rarely a driver. And, to be clear, commitments to new funding have not always been followed by real implementation.

To be sure, good stuff is happening. It just needs some guidance, vision, and leadership across the board. A foresight capacity would be helpful as demonstrated through the Innovation and Learning Summit two decades ago. And speaking of skills and learning, Canada has a talent pool second to none with an emerging next generation of stars that requires more support at all levels. A recent report from the Youth Council advising the Chief Science Advisor outlines some steps that need to be taken to strengthen next generation talent that is more open, inclusive, collaborative, interdisciplinary, and reflective. Encouragement of STEM skills and strengthening K-12 science teaching and education to guide new careers and opportunities will be a sine qua non in helping face the emerging challenges of the next normal.

Overall, a strategic, mission-oriented innovation approach could clearly assist in much of this within a reimagined, 21st century blueprint. Climate, Covid, Catastrophes, Conflicts, and other Crises will all require serious investing and well-articulated collaboration within Canada’s entire knowledge and research ecosystem to help solve the wicked issues of our era and those emerging on the horizon.

Is it now not time to tackle these new challenges and opportunities? Can the country demonstrate much needed national and global leadership with all sectors of our society and economy of the kind that Canada has been known for in the past?

Just saying….