“Culture change” spurs new era of government collaboration on science, technology and innovation

Mark Lowey
May 15, 2019

A “culture change” is driving the federal government to increasingly collaborate on science, technology and innovation (STI) within both its own ranks and externally.

The shift toward what many view as an unprecedented level of collaboration and consultation started with the mandate letters Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent to ministers in his then newly-elected government, senior federal officials told the recent RE$EARCH MONEY conference in Ottawa. Over the past four years, that need for change has been reinforced by the private sector, Indigenous groups, not-for-profits and other stakeholders demanding greater involvement in STI programs, R$ delegates heard from panelists discussing “whole-of-government” initiatives that support innovation.

“There has been quite a shift and you see this on almost every initiative that is taking place within the federal government. It is the expectation to work in partnership with others,” said Rob Wright, assistant DM, science and parliamentary infrastructure branch, at Public Services and Procurement Canada.

“The number of cross references and instructions to collaborate with other ministers and departments represented quite a dense web of interrelationships and interdependencies,” said panel moderator Christine Trauttmansdorff, VP, government relations and Canadian partnerships at Colleges and Institutes Canada.

Trudeau also instructed his minsters to work closely with provincial, territorial and municipal governments, the private sector, academia, Indigenous peoples, not-for-profits and other stakeholders.

“The bar was set really quite high for us in terms of collaboration,” said Wayne Moore, DG, strategic and regulatory science directorate, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). “There’s an expectation that we’re a lot more open.”

There have been more than 950 consultations with external stakeholders since 2016, according to federal data, Trauttmansdorff noted. They’ve included: 89 consultations by the departments of Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC); 45 by Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) and 15 each by DFO, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC).

ISED, which consists of 17 federal departments and agencies, was created with a multi-departmental-agency governance committee to ensure all perspectives were included, said Andrea Johnston, ISED’s assistant DM, Innovation Canada. As another example, the “full federal family” is aligning activities and resources to assist Canada’s five new innovation superclusters and offer more support to scaleup firms, she said.

Collaborating on facilities, procurement, research proposals

Wright said Budget 2018 included a 25-year commitment to revitalize Canada’s federal research facilities. The first $2.8-million phase of this initiative involves creating clusters of government departments and agencies working on similar themes, so they can jointly develop a science plan for cutting-edge facilities, he said. “The objective is to help support what scientists have always done, which is to collaborate, and to break down some of the silos that the Westminster (parliamentary) system of our federal government creates.”

Outside the public service, government is consulting directly with the private sector about how to align public procurement with industry’s needs, Wright said, adding that just a few years ago, this would have been seen as industry influencing the process. However, he said government has since become better at balancing “vertical” departmental responsibilities with external collaborations. “It’s hard to overestimate some of the shifts that are happening.”

This new era of collaboration is extending to shared funding for research. For example, Genome Canada and AAFC teamed with external co-funding partners in a $76-million call last June for large-scale, applied research proposals in the agriculture and agri-food, and fisheries and aquaculture sectors.

“We’re funding our scientists and they (Genome Canada) are funding university scientists on projects of common interest,” said Gilles Saindon, AAFC’s associate assistant DM, science and technology. “So we’re enhancing the collaboration both internally and externally.”

Then there’s DFO’s lead in creating and managing the Oceans Research in Canada Alliance (ORCA) to improve coordination of, and collaboration on, ocean science and technology. Moore said ORCA now includes more than 450 members and 150 organizations. He added that DFO also works closely with Transport Canada and ECCC on the $1.5-billion Oceans Protection Plan.

Another government priority is making government science more relevant and accessible to Canadians, said Nancy Hamzawi, ECCC’s assistant DM, science and technology. For example, the Canada’s Changing Climate Report is completely digital, written in clear and understandable language, and includes both government and academic scientists as authors. The department has created a direct pipeline from the report to the federal Canadian Centre for Climate Services, where Canadians can access climate science data from both government and external organizations, Hamzawi added. “That’s something we haven’t done before.”

For its part, ECCC is holding symposia and workshops with Indigenous Peoples, academic experts and other stakeholders to establish a national climate change and knowledge plan. In November the department brought together federal representatives and domestic and international academic experts to inform the development of a domestic science agenda for plastics, expected to be released this summer.


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