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Driving innovation—are we there yet?

By Paul Dufour      

Moving past the federal election and forward to celebrate our birthday in 2017, are we not due for some truly innovative science and innovation bold ideas from our entrepreneurs, creative youth, elected officials and knowledge communities?

‘There has been no effective mobilization of advice and counsel from outside the public service and responsibility for the expansion of various activities has been borne by individual ministers without any evidence of their relation to national policy as a whole.’ (J. Grant Glassco, Commissioner, 1963)
This salient observation on the country’s national science activities by the Glassco Royal Commission on Government Organization could easily have been written today. Canadian governments and their public service have been experimenting on how to mobilize knowledge assets and advice ever since. A key dimension of all of these ventures over the five decades since that landmark report has been the innovation within the country’s science and innovation policies. From time to time, we have been quite creative, with significant impacts on productivity and social benefits. Unfettered creativity can indeed lead to novel action that makes a difference. As the now dated 2007 federal S&T strategy put it, “To achieve world excellence in science and technology, Canadians must promote and defend two complementary and indivisible freedoms; the freedom of scientists to investigate and the freedom of entrepreneurs to innovate and market their products to the world.”  
History is always important here. Forty-three years ago, in October 1971, Alastair Gillespie, the freshly minted federal minister of state for science and technology was in Paris, meeting with his science counterparts at an OECD meeting. In his short speech on the subject where he outlined the responsibilities of the newly created ministry of state for science and technology, Gillespie argued for better assessments of technology and their environmental and societal risks that were then emerging, including large oil tankers in the North, new mind-altering drugs, entertainment and learning technology as well as other key developments. Gillespie also noted his concern for clearly articulating what the word innovation meant—“as politicians we have a major responsibility to articulate what innovation is, to other politicians and to our electors.”
Today, more than four decades later, “innovation” is still the word—can we therefore conclude that it is now truly central to, and at the heart of, the dealings of our elected governments?    
Not quite. The average stint of ministers responsible for science in the Canadian government since the first appointment of Gillespie is just under two years, about the same for federal deputy ministers over the last few years. Continuity and stability in policy-making as a result has been difficult to maintain. We shed independent advisory organizations without considering their impact. There is no senior minister with a stand-alone department and overarching national vision; piecemeal decision-making with fragmentary evidence has often been the result. Proponents for new knowledge investments must make their case on a continuous and competitive basis with a constantly changing guard—all within a context of diminished expectations and rapidly-changing financial realities and uncertainty.
It is worth remembering, however, that, as the new millennium approached, a spate of policy innovation took hold of Canada’s knowledge ecosystem. The unique Networks of Centres of Excellence established in 1989 had already demonstrated considerable innovation as had the Canada Foundation for Innovation in 1997, but at the turn of the 21st century, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) emerged from the old Medical Research Council; the Canada Research Chairs were established; a retooled genomics organization was brought back on the table as Genome Canada. Other experiments have since followed.
The Perimeter Institute and Institute for Quantum Computing saw the light of day with philanthropic and government support; a Science Media Centre emerged to assist journalists with getting the right science behind their stories as well as aiding scientists to better communicate their work; and the innovative Grand Challenges Canada venture has shown why strategic intent matters in designing new institutions that can fulfil both domestic and global needs. Aggressive initiative from this country’s research communities along with key champions in government circles helped create the Council of Canadian Academies and accomplished what Gillespie presciently suggested was badly needed—science assessments to inform decision-making.
There are a number of other innovations underway designed to fill gaps in our knowledge governance system; these, if properly channelled and supported, will help shape a more effective public dialogue and further action in science and innovation. Science culture—in all of its facets—is in need of more considered support at all levels of government. Government science is being reassessed via an expert panel. The current model for S&T in the federal government needs to evolve in relation to changing external realities such as fast-paced global scientific advancements and the convergence of disciplines. A health-care innovation advisory panel is underway consulting on key actions for more innovative and effective health care across Canada. Ideas centred on a new Parliamentary office for S&T are circulating along with greater public recognition of research stars, students, teachers and entrepreneurs. Advocacy groups like Evidence for Democracy and PIPSC are holding the government’s feet to the fire with respect to its own research community to ensure sound science for more effective public policy.  There is also the new experience of a Quebec chief scientist who not only advises on science and innovation, but celebrates new and upcoming talent through media outreach and awards.
To be sure, experiments have also failed or succumbed to mission creep; sadly, we rarely seem to learn from our mistakes. Recently, the commissioner for the environment and sustainable development has suggested conducting a strategic science audit, asking for public input … or more precisely, what is working well now; what are the areas that need improvement; what are the biggest risks facing the federal science and technology function and strategies, and what criteria would be used to assess how well the government is doing.
It is never easy to imagine a future that looks brighter at a time when the lights appear to be dimming. A hopeful trend may be emerging in Canada where institutional experimentation may well be underway once again, a lot of it from bright minds leveraging new partnerships and unique business models as governments struggle to meet the expectations of their citizens—all aimed at improving our culture, quality of life and economic prosperity through innovation and discovery.
Any sustainable architecture for novel science and innovation policy requires real resources, champions, transformative ideas, patience, passion and timing. Moving past the federal election and forward to celebrate our birthday in 2017, are we not due for some truly innovative science and innovation bold ideas from our entrepreneurs, creative youth, elected officials and knowledge communities? As the auditor general concluded in its 1994 report on the role of government in an innovative society, “if we could continue to establish and maintain among us the interconnection that is the basis for societal innovation, we might well become known as Canada, the innovative country.”
Paul Dufour is fellow and adjunct professor, Institute for Science, Society and Policy, University of Ottawa.
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