Science strategies for a smart Canada

Science strategies for a smart Canada

January 31, 2005

Peter Drucker, the 20th Century social philosopher once said: "We are seeing a fundamental change in the human condition—a shift to a knowledge-based society." This statement has particular relevance to Canadians as we face the opportunities and challenges of building a strong foundation for knowledge, and dealing with our ability to apply this new knowledge to enhance our quality of life and add value to our economy in a sustainable fashion.

There is no doubt that we are witnessing an explosive growth of knowledge that is unprecedented in history. To put this in the context of human experience, we need only reflect on the age of the planet. While the earth is 4.5 billion years old, almost the entirety of our scientific knowledge has been accumulated in the last two millennia—most of it in the past 100 years.

It took from year 1 AD to 1750 to double humankind's scientific knowledge. But it also doubled between 1900 and 1950, and doubled again between 1950 and 1960. Knowledge quadrupled in the 1970s, and again in the 1980s. It likely increased tenfold in the `90s. And it's a good bet that the rate of growth will continue to accelerate in the first ten years of the new millennium.

The pace of technological change is also accelerating due to rapid advances in computing, information and communications technologies (ICT), biotechnologies, materials technologies, and the numerous areas of convergence between them. For example, e-health is breaking down barriers of distance and cost for the diagnosis and treatment of people in remote communities. And people are more informed today about the potential benefits and impacts of changes in the environment, or the development of new drug treatments, than would have been imaginable even a decade ago.

These changes are affecting our societies and our way of life in ways we never dreamed of before. However, our knowledge-management and social systems have not been able to keep pace—to adapt and deal with these technological developments. In fact, according to a recent EKOS Research Associates survey on rethinking science and society, 75 percent of Canadians agree that science and research play an important role across all areas of society—including health, the economy, and citizenship. But 64 percent of Canadians believe that technologies are developing faster than our capacity to deal with the ethical issues associated with them. There is widespread agreement among Canadians (84 percent) that Canada must invest more in scientific research. They also agree that science will: solve problems such as infections, diseases, and pollution (77 percent); provide Canada with the ability to maintain a sufficient food supply (77 percent); and help us use our national resources in a more sustainable way (73 percent).

Government S&T Priorities

According to this same EKOS Research Associates survey, Canadians view the role of the Government in support of science as more of a "risk manager," using scientific knowledge to protect, for example, our food supply and the general health of Canadians. Canadians have also expressed a great interest in having the Government as a partner in investments in science, and sharing the costs with other players like the provinces, the private sector, and universities. This role, as a key partner, has characterized much of how the Government has approached its investments in S&T and innovation over the past several years.

As National Science Advisor, an important part of my mandate is to build on these partnerships and work with all the stakeholders on the agenda of knowledge for sustainable and responsible growth. I was both relieved and encouraged by the Government's strong ongoing commitment—as expressed in the most recent Speech from the Throne—to increase Canada's economic performance and quality of life through science and innovation.

The Speech included several statements that underpin this goal. First of all, it mentioned the need to build on the massive $13 billion of federal investment in S&T over the past six years—an investment that has dramatically improved the research environment and created a strong research base, particularly in the academic community. The Speech also stressed that commercialization—turning ideas, inventions, and discoveries into dynamic businesses and products for the global marketplace—is crucially important if Canada is to fully benefit from its knowledge base. Enhancing Canada's capabilities in key enabling technologies such as biotech, ICT, and advanced materials, must also be a focus. Finally, the Speech reiterated the Government's commitment to sustainable economic and human development in regions, in sectors, and in the north.

I am also very pleased with the Prime Minister's announcement that the Government will seek to launch the Canadian Academies of Science (CAS)—a national alliance of the country's leading scientific and engineering academies that will operate at arm's length from government. With operational funding of $35 million over the next 10 years, the CAS will provide expert assessments on the state of scientific knowledge, where that knowledge is relevant to current and future policy choices. It will also give our country a unified voice in international science forums. The creation of the CAS may also provide an opportunity to explore a dialogue with the Canadian public on the societal impacts of rapid technological change.

The Role of National Science Advisor

As a new and unprecedented addition to the panoply of science policy structures in the Canadian Government, the position of National Science Advisor provides an opportunity for a different perspective and dimension on science issues. In this role, my mandate is to provide the Prime Minister with sound, unbiased, and non-partisan advice on science and technology. I have already identified a number of initial priorities.

The first of these priorities is the commercialization of research results. I have been asked to work with the Minister of Industry to build a comprehensive and integrated action plan that will see Canada emerge as one of the world's leaders in turning ideas into wealth for the nation. My office is well engaged on this issue.

A second priority, as identified by the Prime Minister, is science and technology for international development and how we can mobilize Canadian research and technological expertise to help meet and solve the challenges of the developing nations of the world—including the rising economic powerhouses in China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. We also have a global responsibility to provide our expertise and assistance to help develop capacity for the application of knowledge in other lesser-developed countries such as those in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Canada has a strong role to play there given its tolerant, bilingual, multicultural, and ethnically diverse population. I am hopeful that the forthcoming International Policy Statement and Emerging Markets Strategy will provide guidance on how we will engage our knowledge sectors in international diplomacy, trade, and development assistance.

A third major priority is to work with the Government to ensure that its science and technology investments are, in the words of the Speech from the Throne, "…strategic, focused and delivering results." This will involve looking at ways to revitalize public research in government labs, to break down silos, and to remove barriers to collaboration to ensure a fuller integration of the Government's in-house science and technology activity. A particularly exciting opportunity in this area is the upcoming International Polar Year (IPY), set to take place in 2007-2008. The first IPY in 50 years, IPY 2007-2008 will feature an intense, international campaign of research that is expected to be a landmark in international polar science, and will lay the foundation for decades of future polar research. In total, the projected global IPY research budget is expected to exceed $1 billion, with about 100 countries participating.

The IPY research will focus on both polar regions and will recognize the strong links these regions have with the rest of the planet, especially their role in controlling climate change. Research programs will cross many disciplines, including cultural, social, health, and geophysical and biological studies. Canada's strength in this area will be focused on the human dimensions of polar research. To date, we have made a good start—through a secretariat based at the University of Alberta—in mobilizing the many federal, provincial, and territorial participants, as well as the research and aboriginal communities involved in this subject.

An important element of Canada's research capacity in this area is to enable infrastructure—such as the icebreaker research vessel, Amundsen, newly equipped thanks to Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) funding—and logistics support from federal government departments and research grants from the federal funding agencies.

I began by highlighting the enormous pace of knowledge development and underscoring its potential for improving our society and economy. It is critical that we fully appreciate how that knowledge can be strategically and responsibly applied to national goals to open up a huge vista of opportunity for Canadians.

Arthur Carty, National Science Advisor.

The views and ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Canada Foundation for Innovation or its Board Directors and Members.