By Paul Dufour
RE$EARCH MONEY has always had impact. Since its founding three decades ago, the newsletter has covered a good deal of Canada’s STI debates and discussions. When it debuted in 1987, Canada had its first and only national science, technology and skills plan—one that was adopted by all levels of government.
There was also a Science Council of Canada and a newly formed advisory board called NABST. The federal government of the day was pushing the Canada-US trade and economic development relationship. The Arctic was seen to be a key to national sovereignty and protecting the country’s environmental heritage was a major touchstone. The PM gave a speech on March 4 in Waterloo (where all future PM’s have since made a pilgrimage) stating, “We can compete with the best, we can be world leaders, and in many areas we already are — In science and technology, Canada must itself become a byword for excellence.”
As 30 years have passed, so too have a raft of science, technology and innovation policies with similar messaging. Since taking over as editor in 1994 from Vince Wright, the commentary and interviews by Mark Henderson have tackled many of these policy subjects such as protecting intellectual property and changing rules for tax credits; creating a new high technology economy; covering how the natural resources sector will bail us out—after all, we are hewers of wood and drawers of water and a so-called energy power.
The success of our higher education sectors has been often highlighted where the university lobby has been remarkably adroit at re-shaping the rhetoric of respective governments when they come into power and procuring major new investments. Mark has also probed the pitfalls and challenges of the government sector and public good science considerably downgraded and eroded with few to champion its cause. And, of course, there was considerable editorializing on the industry and technology lobbies which remain the weak link of the ecosystem for innovation. As was so aptly put it in the 2013 CCA report Paradox Lost, “Canadian firms have been as innovative as they have to be. “
Through all of this, Mark has been chronicling the ups and downs of the debate—it has been no easy task. Sound and reliable information from sources often reluctant to talk (especially over the past decade when the Harper regime shut down its own scientists and government communications shops) is no mean feat. As a source for inside information and helpful analysis about new trends and data, not to mention a platform for many to air their respective views, RE$EARCH MONEY knows few peers.
Mark’s editorials have been a valuable guidepost to the many issues that still plague the Canadian innovation landscape—they do not escape his notice. With the creation of CFI, Henderson warned in 1997 (March 12) that, “The CFI board of directors must also be sensitive to the needs of the basic research community as a whole, and smaller schools in particular. Otherwise, the corporatization of the university system could lead to distortion and long-term damage.”
On Canada’s bioscience capability, a November 26 1997 column noted that, “The failure of Canada to maintain a presence in the global race to map the human genome is bewildering… that’s about to change with the emergence of the Gene Sequence Centre in Vancouver and a high-powered, MRC –funded task force mandated to get genome research in Canada back on track.” (Genome Canada was yet to come into being).
Regarding the constant tinkering with the NRC, in a Nov 24 1999 issue, he remarked that, “Too much of Canada’s S&T emanates from the NRC to risk starving it to death. Canada’s fiscal surplus is large enough that there are simply no more excuses.”
With the global scene, he also argued. “It’s time government looked seriously at what constitutes Canada’s international S&T effort, benchmark it against other nations, and act accordingly … Being a small nation doesn’t mean we also have to be small-minded.” (Dec 2 1998)
And the social sciences did not go unnoticed when fewer funds were to be had: “This concern is not only coming from those engaged in, or supportive of, the social sciences and communities. It’s also being raised by prominent members of the business community, who recognize that knowledge comes in many forms other than software code and chemical compounds—the new media sector demonstrates how interdisciplinary research can produce spectacular results.” (May 12 2000)
In a Jan 20 2003 column about the newly posited Innovation and Skills strategy of the Martin government, “there certainly isn’t a lack of good ideas — it’s a matter of political will and making tough choices and thinking beyond the next election. Public ignorance on the centrality of S&T and innovation can be changed. The behaviour and motivation of politicians may prove far more difficult. “
And very recently this year, he was at it again noting that. “The new Innovation and Skills Strategy, if properly resourced and implemented, could be the tool for ushering in a new era of innovation.”
Mark also weighed in on the proclivity of politicians to delay through continuous consultations. Here he is in 2001 (Nov 28): “By all means, the government should consult with stakeholders and demonstrate flexibility in shaping the innovation strategy and new initiatives. But don’t stall on the issues that need immediate attention. No more delays. It’s time to get the innovation show on the road.”
In a Dec 18 2013 editorial he riffs on another Canadian condition that is well known to policy wonks: “Canada’s resource- and knowledge-based economies can be developed in tandem, cross-fertilizing one another and creating vast new sources of revenue generation—such a sea change from the status quo requires support for both basic research and innovation—not the either-or approach now being pursued in Ottawa. And it requires champions throughout the innovation ecosystem tied together by a holistic approach to identifying, building and exploiting Canada’s research strengths.”
It’s not easy being on top of these issues and writing about them week after week, year after year. But in 23 years, Mark’s concise and expressive columns offer a positive tone in all of their concluding messages. Students of science policy will find a treasure trove of material that has marked the evolution of the STI issues in this country.
Readers of RE$EARCH MONEY will miss Mark’s guiding hand but will enjoy his continuing contributions to this important publication. Mark, we wish you an enjoyable musical interlude and future re-wiring.
Paul Dufour is an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy. He is a longtime friend of, and contributor to, RE$EARCH MONEY