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Stakeholders looking for industry element to feds’ new science and tech strategy

By Denis Calnan      

Stakeholders are wondering if it will make a strong move toward intertwining business and academia or if the final document will just be new language around old policies.

While the government is working on a renewed federal science and technology strategy, stakeholders are wondering if it will make a strong move toward intertwining business and academia or if the final document will just be new language around old policies.
The move is to update the 2007 government strategy, Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage. The government said on its website that a new strategy is needed because “the global landscape has changed in the past seven years.”
That’s something many people working in the field agree with.
Nobina Robinson, the CEO of Polytechnics Canada, a national alliance of Canada’s leading research-intensive, publicly-funded colleges and institutes of technology, said the strategy can’t come soon enough. Ms. Robinson was a member of the federal Expert Review Panel on Research and Development, known as the Jenkins panel.
“You can innovate on the shop floor, you can innovate in the oil patch, you can innovate in the resource sector,” said Ms. Robinson.
That is a view shared by Scott Smith, the director of intellectual property and innovation policy at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
Mr. Smith said there are several reasons the strategy needs to be renewed.
“Canada is actually sliding on the innovation scale when you look internationally. So all of the indexes—competitiveness, innovation—we’re dropping, instead of improving,” said Mr. Smith, citing consecutive World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness reports that have Canada’s ranking slipping.
“I would suspect the government is looking at those numbers and saying, ‘Okay, well we need to re-evaluate,’” said Mr. Smith.
He said it probably does not make sense for government to keep spending money in the same way it was seven years ago, and instead it needs to turn toward businesses.
“Most research and development is done by large companies,” said Mr. Smith.
“They’re not always looking at breakthrough technologies, where post-secondary institutions might be,” he said, pointing out that would be a reason to continue funding the academic part of the equation.
 “But if you want business to participate there needs to be a commercialization aspect to it,” said Mr. Smith, noting that industry is better at bringing academic research to commercial fruition.
He said the government and its agencies are already doing some effective pairing in other areas that could serve as a good “template,” such as the National Research Council’s pairing with industry and Genome Canada’s genomic applications partnership programs, which pairs businesses with academics.
Suzanne Corbeil, the executive director of the U15 group of Canadian research universities, said that this government has pushed heavily on building relationships between government, universities and industry.
“I would not be surprised to see that reinforced and maybe even in a stronger way than it was before,” said Ms. Corbeil.
She wants to make sure any investment in industry does not come at the expense of work being done at the post-secondary level.
“For our side, what’s important is to keep the balance between that approach to research and funding and program development and policies that support the research enterprise in Canada, along with what the basic research requirements are, the fundamental research programs that are at the beginning of the process, as opposed to those that are on the spectrum more aligned to the private sector,” said Ms. Corbeil.
She said it is important that the government makes the strategy public as soon as possible to help people involved with other business intertwined with the strategy do their job.
“[Details of] the Canada First Research Excellence Fund are poised to be announced very soon. And if there is anything in the strategy that would need for us to be aligned with that, that would be critically important,” said Ms. Corbeil.
Mr. Smith said he expects it will come out soon because of the approaching election so the Conservatives can campaign on it.
One interesting point that is raising some concern is the addition of the word ‘innovation’ to the strategy.
“I don’t think there’s anybody who doubts that Canada needs to have a better 21st century logic of how to stimulate both science, technology development and innovation. All three of which are different things,” said Ms. Robinson.
“There was great hope that adding the letter ‘I’ to the ‘S’ and ‘T’ strategy, we were actually going to do such an update. But as soon as you put in the letter ‘I’—innovation—you’re actually talking about something that’s not just curiosity-driven, blue-sky research. It’s actually market oriented,” which will bring a “return on investments or increase profit,” said Ms. Robinson.
She said the strategy must clearly state the different roles of those who play a part in the science and technology area, compared to those working in innovation.
Neither Ms. Robinson nor Ms. Corbeil is expecting sweeping changes in the strategy.
“To expect a whole new strategy for science, technology and innovation is not on my mind. Simply because that’s not the way it’s been described,” said Ms. Corbeil, who said she expects more of a “tweaking.”
Ms. Robinson notes a strategy is not a program that comes with new funding.
She said she expects “a packaging of the existing status quo,” stating that there may be a lack of vision on the part of the federal bureaucracy, rather than the minister.
Minister of State (Science and Technology) Ed Holder (London West, Ont.) was not able to speak about the strategy because it has not been released yet. The release date has not been made public.
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