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Every day is ‘Science Day’

Preston Manning, Globe and Mail – June 2, 2009

There is scarcely a single issue that is not affected by the


collaborative arm of science, technology and innovation
Last week, as debate raged in the House of Commons over the ballooning
federal deficit, representatives of Canada's science, technology and
innovation community met at an Ottawa hotel to discuss, in a calmer and
more rational atmosphere, another issue of great importance.

How should the federal government allocate the $12-billion to $13-billion it


currently invests annually in science, technology and innovation (STI) - a
figure larger than the total of the GM bailout - so as to maximize its
contribution to the social and economic well-being of Canadians?

An academic question, you say? Not really, because how and where that
money is invested - whether wisely, foolishly or indifferently - will have major
long-term impact on your health, the environment, your children's future and
the productivity of the enterprises that provide Canadians with goods,
services, jobs and incomes.

At the Ottawa meeting - dubbed Science Day in Canada and organized by the
Public Policy Forum - attendees considered points made by two recently
released reports, one by an expert panel of the Canadian Council of
Academies, the other by the federal Science, Technology and Innovation
Council:

• That Canada's private sector lags behind those of most other OECD
countries in its financial commitments to research and development;
• That this lag appears to be related to a lack of “innovation strategies”
on the part of many Canadian companies rather than some deficiency
in government policy or R&D tax incentives;
• That R&D conducted in Canada's public sector, including universities
and hospitals, is among the best and best financed (on a per capita
basis) in the world;
• That stronger collaboration is required among all components of the
innovation chain - researchers, universities, governments and their
agencies, businesses and the financial sector - to maximize the return
on Canada's R&D investments.
One obstacle to more productive relations between the federal government
and the STI community is confusion over exactly how and on what basis the
federal government allocates funds to the science-oriented programs,
agencies, councils, institutions and projects it supports.
Many members of the STI community, for example, were pleased with the
recent federal allocation of $2-billion to “infrastructure projects” at Canada's
universities and colleges. But others were concerned that the magnitude and
focus of this allocation is shortchanging the federal granting councils and
other agencies on which many research projects depend for funds to pay
personnel (scientists) and operating costs.

At the Science Day luncheon, Industry Minister Tony Clement defended the
federal government's commitments to STI contained in its stimulus package
and 2009-10 budget, as did Science and Technology Minister Gary Goodyear
at a reception later in the day.

After Mr. Clement's address, I was given an opportunity to propose a


measure to clarify how and on what basis the federal government allocates
funds to STI - a measure that would strengthen relations between the federal
government and the STI community by eliminating misunderstandings and
suspicions on this point. In short, my proposal was that Ottawa direct its
Science, Technology and Innovation Council to do three things:

• To provide an up-to-date description of how these allocation decisions


have been made in the past;
• To identify the principles and sources of advice on which such decisions
should be based;
• To recommend the most appropriate structure and process - one
characterized by transparency and openness - for making these
decisions in the future.
If the federal government acts on this proposal, and a news conference is
held six months hence to announce acceptance of the STIC's
recommendations, only a few diehard science reporters will attend and the
story, if any, will be lucky to see the light of day.

Why? Because in the Ottawa circus arena, long term cannot compete
successfully with short term for media or political attention - nor can
rationality and co-operation with the emotion and confrontation of Question
Period.

Notwithstanding this sad fact, there is scarcely a single issue raised in


Question Period and headlined by the media the next day that is not affected
by the collaborative arm of science, technology and innovation.

It is scientific instrumentation that detected and measured the nature and


magnitude of the North Korean nuclear test, that provides the data for
debating the dangers of tasers, and that supplies the DNA samples at the
heart of that spectacular criminal trial reported at the top of the news.

It is the success or failure of technology transfers from the laboratory to the


marketplace that will determine whether petroleum produced from the
Athabasca oil sands can be exported freely to the United States or whether a
vaccine can be manufactured in time to combat the next dangerous flu virus
heralded with such hyperbole by health reporters.

It is the social sciences that have measured the successes and failures of
public policies from those of the central bank to the employment insurance
system, and it is the humanities that first feel and report the pain or joy of
those affected by such policies. And it is the social sciences and humanities
that can shed much light on the potential impact of the stimulus packages, EI
reforms and “quantitative easements” of the money supply reported on in
such great detail in the financial press.

In the 21st century, for better or worse, every day is “science day” - and the
more deeply this registers on the consciousness of our politicians, media and
citizenry, the better.