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The recommendation from the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) includes dissolving Industry Canada and consolidating federal efforts around science, technology and business innovation under a single, senior minister. (Amanda Rohde/iStockphoto.com)
The recommendation from the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) includes dissolving Industry Canada and consolidating federal efforts around science, technology and business innovation under a single, senior minister. (Amanda Rohde/iStockphoto.com)

Tech alliance pushes for federal innovation ministry Add to ...

In the wake of the Liberals’ decisive election victory, Canada’s largest high-tech trade association is calling for a beefed-up science and technology ministry dedicated to fostering business innovation.

The recommendation from the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) includes dissolving Industry Canada and consolidating federal efforts around science, technology and business innovation under a single, senior minister. Such a scenario would dovetail with Justin Trudeau’s stated intention of appointing a federal cabinet on Nov. 4 that comprises a smaller number of ministers who are empowered to implement a transformational agenda.

As envisioned by CATA, the new minister would have the resources and the mandate to boost the country’s tepid private-sector R&D effort.

“You need a very clear leadership statement from the top, so we would expect a significant cabinet appointment,” said John Reid, the alliance’s CEO.

The science and technology portfolio has never been viewed as a senior role in previous iterations of the federal cabinet. Those who endorse CATA’s proposal say that must change in order for Canada to improve its global ranking on innovation and derive the full economic benefits of its research community.

“Not only is it a good idea, I think it’s a do-or-die idea,” said David Wolfe, co-director of the Innovation Policy Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School for Global Affairs.

He noted that the biggest hurdle in getting new technologies to market in Canada is not a lack of new ideas coming from universities and research centres but the “absorptive capacity” in the private sector to develop those ideas to Canada’s competitive advantage.

Adam Holbrook, associate director of the Centre for Policy Research on Science and Technology at Simon Fraser University said that the the current ministry is not well set up to address this issue, in part because its approach to industrial activity in Canada is too rooted in the previous century.

“Canada has to work in the digital world, yet Industry Canada is still thinking in terms of making and shipping physical items,” he said.

With virtually all areas of industry under rapid transformation because of digital technologies such as data mining and additive manufacturing (3D printing), a revamped federal ministry could help spur innovation culture in Canada, Mr. Reid said.

“We need to pivot because we have lagged for many years,” he added.

A new ministry tops a seven-point “working agenda” for the new government in a release by CATA on Tuesday.

Other items on the list include a more effective Scientific Research & Experimental Development (SR&ED) tax incentive program for encouraging business innovation and a federal-provincial joint effort to improve regulations related to crowdfunding startups “that enable startups to raise up to $50-million from anyone.”

CATA is also among those advocating that Canada emulate the Small Business Research Investment program, a U.S. government vehicle for channelling incentives to small businesses so that they can develop cutting-edge technologies.

Science policy makers have grappled with the dilemma that business investment in research and development in Canada has been in steady decline over the past 10 years. Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the government emphasized targeted research programs and grants that were designed to foster partnerships between universities and industry.

Peter Morand, an Ottawa-based consultant and former head of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, said that this approach may have contributed to the decline because it turns university labs into a subsidized research arm of industry.

“The inefficiencies inherent in this approach no doubt contribute to Canada’s poor performance in business innovation,” he said.

Dr. Morand, who has long championed the idea of a dedicated innovation minister, said better leadership and co-ordination was needed from Ottawa to put best practices in place across Canadian industry.

Others remain more skeptical that a new ministry would have the necessary leverage in Ottawa to redirect innovation culture across Canada.

“It has to have the imprimatur of the Prime Minister’s office, otherwise it won’t have the clout,” said Paul Dufour, fellow and adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy.

He noted that the Liberal campaign platform leaves room for experimentation with science governance, including the possibility of a chief science officer for Canada, along the lines of a position that already exists at the provincial level in Quebec.

Dr. Wolfe said that now is the time to revamp how Ottawa fosters business innovation, but added that unless a concerted effort is made, the issue could be pushed into the background by other priorities.

“I think this government is going to be more receptive than the previous government, but my concern is that there are going to be an awful lot of competing agenda items to deal with,” he said.

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