New Canadian advanced research agency appears likely, says CCI

Monte Stewart
September 8, 2021

A Canadian advanced research agency is closer to becoming a reality now that both the Liberals and Conservatives are promising to create one, says Ben Bergen, the executive director of the Canadian Council of Innovators (CCI).

The Liberals proposed a $2-billion Canadian Advanced Research Projects Agency (CARPA) in early September as part of the party’s election platform. The proposal came after the Conservatives announced their plan in August to create a new $5-billion Canadian Advanced Research Agency (CARA) if they win the September 20 election.

Both proposed agencies are modelled after the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Program Agency (DARPA), which has been credited for spearheading the research, development and commercialization of many technological advancements south of the border.

But Bergen warned that there is more work to do before such an agency begins operating.

"[For] a news release piece, it's sort of a flashy thing,” said Bergen of the Liberals’ plan. “But, really, now it comes down to the execution.”

The Green Party also included plans to create a new innovation agency in its platform, but has yet to provide details on how it would function.

With two major parties now promising a new advanced Canadian research agency, its odds of being created are better, Bergen added. But the agency’s implementation could stall, depending on which party wins the election, whether there is another minority government, and which issues, particularly the COVID-19 pandemic, the Liberals choose to prioritize if they regain office.

In addition to allocating more dollars for their would-be agency, the Conservatives are offering more specifics than the Liberals, Bergen added. The Tories have “tackled” three key issues: Retention of intellectual property (IP) ownership within Canada if technology produced from research is sold abroad, sales to corporations and taxation, and a plan for the federal government to be a buyer.

Liberal plan contains “less detail”

“They’re trying to, at least, [address] a number of the issues that innovators have been complaining about as challenges over the years,” said Bergen. “Whereas, I think, when you look at CARPA, there's less detail — or less colouring in — on what that would look like."

He said there is a focus on sectors like GPS technology and other areas, but the Liberals have not shown how they will deal with IP commercialization and how IP will go to the market.

Bergen called on the Liberals and Conservatives to involve innovators in the construction of their proposed advanced research agencies.

"There's a flashback to the [innovation] superclusters that the Liberals tried to move forward over the last five years," said Bergen. "Ultimately, those haven't really yielded the results that they were looking for. It's because they didn't have some of the proper frameworks in place in order to make sure that commercialization [of project results] was front and centre.”

The Liberals also need to acknowledge that the retention of IP ownership is “critical” to the commercialization effort, he said.

Last October, Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux reported that the regional research and development supercluster program, created by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government in 2018, is creating roughly 14 jobs for every $1 million of combined federal and private investment, and is unlikely to meet its economic-growth projections. The supercluster program aims to generate $1 billion in private-public investment and 50,000 new jobs over a decade.

The Conservatives also plan to review all federal research programs to ensure that tax dollars benefit Canadian innovators and workers first — and are not sent to foreign multinationals. But the Liberals have not indicated any plans for a review.

The Liberal innovation platform contains elements that the CCI sought from the Trudeau government before the campaign while discussing various programs with Ottawa, said Bergen. While the CCI anticipated that the Liberals could propose a DARPA-like agency, the party did not consult the group about the plan. Nor did they give the CCI a “direct heads up,” he said.

Business Council of Canada previously called for DARPA-like agency

The Business Council of Canada (BCC) vice-president of policy Robert Asselin has repeatedly called for the creation of a Canadian DARPA-like agency, including in a January 2021 letter to Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry Francois-Phillippe Champagne.

The BCC declined to comment on the Liberal innovation platform. In a bid to stay neutral, the nonpartisan group is not commenting on any issues during the election campaign. But a BCC spokesman confirmed Wednesday that the organization supports the Tories’ call for a new DARPA-like agency.

The U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities, which appears likely to be involved with any new Canadian advanced research agency, also declined to comment on the Liberal innovation platform in order to remain impartial during the campaign.

The group represents Canada’s most research-intensive educational institutions and, according to its website, receives 79 per cent of all competitively allocated Canadian research funding. The U15 also holds 85 per cent of Canadian university technology licences and 81 per cent of Canadian university patents.

NDP makes few promises on innovation, Green Party proposes new innovation agency  

So far, the NDP has made fewer promises related to research and innovation than the Liberals and Conservatives.

While NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has “aspirational ideas,” the NDP’s statement on innovation is too “high-level,” Bergen said. He added that the CCI supports the NDP’s call for “fair taxation” of foreign multinationals, however.

The Greens’ recently released election platform largely aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by curbing fossil-fuel production and consumption while calling for laws that incentivize green investments and jobs. The platform included sections on scientific research, intellectual property commercialization and innovation.

The party promised to establish a "dedicated innovation agency that focuses on developing joint projects across universities, private industry, and national labs," but has not said whether such an agency would be based on the DARPA model.

The Green Party also promised to increase funding for the granting councils, such as Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, and create a $1 billion Green Venture Capital Fund for green start-ups.


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