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Feds urged to show stronger leadership on biotech

By Chris Plecash      

Industry insiders say the government needs senior leadership when it comes to science and technology.

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It’s been four years since the government introduced its Science and Technology Strategy, and industry insiders say it’s time for the federal government to show renewed leadership in making Canada a world leader in biotechnology.

Soon after forming government in 2006, the Conservatives scrapped the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee, which advised the government and informed the public on the biotechnology industry. The committee was replaced by the Science, Technology, and Innovation Council, an arm’s length committee that provides confidential advice to the government and issues public reports on science and technology in Canada on a two-year basis.

Similarly, the Canadian Biotechnology Strategy, which sought to capitalize on the economic, health, and environmental benefits of Canada’s biotechnology sector, was replaced by the more general Science and Technology Strategy in 2007.

“What I’m hearing now is that biotechnology is stagnant, and it shouldn’t be,” said Liberal MP and science and technology critic Ted Hsu (Kingston and The Islands, Ont.), who holds a PhD in physics and worked to support sustainable energy initiatives in the Kingston region prior to his election earlier this year. “A lot of decisions get made at the PMO level, not the ministerial level. If Canada wants to focus on science and technology, the expertise needs to be in the PMO, so that there’s direct expert input when it comes to the sector, particularly biotechnology.”

Industry association BIOTECanada reports that Canada’s biotech sector, which encompasses industrial, agricultural, and medicinal applications of modified organisms, is an $87-billion industry—seven per cent of Canada’s GDP.

“Do we want to be good enough and survive, or do we want to lead,” asked Ali Tehrani, CEO of Vancouver based biotech researcher Zymeworks. “If we just want to survive, then we’re doing that, no problem. If we want to lead, we have to be innovative, and being innovative means thinking creatively, looking at other formulas, not what worked 20 years ago.”

Mr. Tehrani said his concern isn’t so much for Zymeworks; the privately-owned company announced a lucrative deal with multi-national pharmaceutical company Merck early this summer. Rather, he’s one of many industry insiders urging the federal government to show more leadership in promoting Canada’s biotech sector.

Jeffrey Graham, who specializes in biotech legal issues for Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, acknowledged that federal and provincial governments have made coordinated efforts to streamline regulation, attract investment, and encourage cross-sector collaboration, but he added that there needed to be a senior level federal Cabinet position when it comes to science and technology. 

“What we need to do, and this is a view many in the sector would share, would be to elevate that responsibility and include it at the senior level of Cabinet,” said Mr. Graham, citing Israel as an example of a country with a minister accountable on matters science policy and expenditures. “[It] would be in the best interests of the sector, and frankly in the best interests of government, from a policy coordination standpoint.”

“We’ve always been coupled with other industries.… It would be nice to see a deputy minister, someone with a dedicated voice,” said Mr. Tehrani, who seconded the need for senior level ministers responsible for science and technology policy, both federally and provincially.

“I think everyone in the federal government gets it. Everybody says “biotech is cool, we gotta be there,” but I think they see it as a nice to have, not a need to have,” Mr. Tehrani added, praising former Industry Minister Tony Clement (Parry Sound-Muskoka, Ont.) for recognizing the role of the bioeconomy in creating jobs in Canada.

Mr. Clement held the portfolio from 2008 until he was replaced by Industry Minister Christian Paradis (Mégantic-L’Érable, Que.) soon after the 2011 election. Assisting Mr. Paradis on biotechnology policy issues is Gary Goodyear (Cambridge-Dumfries, Ont.), who has served as minister of state for science and technology since 2008. Earlier this summer Mr. Goodyear attended the BIO International Convention in Washington, D.C., which brought together biotechnology and pharmaceutical stakeholders from all over the world.

“Our government is committed to making sure that Canada remains a world leader in biotechnology research because of the benefits it provides for Canadians in terms of jobs and improved quality of life,” Mr. Goodyear declared in a press release following the conference, adding that he looked forward to “helping our life sciences industry become even more globally competitive.”

Despite Mr. Goodyear’s participation in the recent conference, it’s unclear who has ministerial responsibility when it comes to Canada’s biotechnology sector. When The Hill Times requested an interview on life sciences policy, staff for Mr. Paradis stated that biotechnology was Mr. Goodyear’s portfolio, while staff for Mr. Goodyear referred the matter back to Mr. Paradis’ office.

cplecash@hilltimes.com

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