The approach that the federal Conservatives have taken to science is evident in their efforts to renew the national science policy.
A public consultation was commenced last week, without much fanfare, on a plan to update the policy that has been in place since 2007. Submissions must be received by February 7. The main thrust of the renewal, according to a government news release, is to seek the views of Canadians on research and development, business innovation, and developing innovative and entrepreneurial people.
It comes at a time when the government faces criticism for muzzling its own scientists, downsizing the size of its scientific workforce, closing its scientific libraries and abandoning its long-standing support for research at places like the Experimental Lakes Area.
But Greg Rickford, the Minister of State for Science and Technology, says his government is strongly committed to the research and development of "things that translate into products or things that are beneficial to the marketplace, to communities, or Canadians."
The Globe and Mail spoke to Mr. Rickford about the renewal of its science policy.
Why does Canada need a science strategy?
It's setting the right conditions to build knowledge and lay the foundation for knowledge translation … The world has changed since 2007. The terms of global competition and ideas or notions around excellence, particularly in science and research and development, are changing. And we feel like a fresh strategy, a moving-forward document, will build on our strengths and help to address some of the structural challenges that we face in the ongoing process of being globally competitive and addressing pressing national priorities and the extent of the federal government's involvement with that.
The provinces have moved, and are moving, in new directions around, particularly, innovation. So we think, to a certain extent, (there is a need for) some alignment with that, with a particular emphasis on the entire commercialization process that is supporting science, technology and innovation to make real differences in communities and obviously in a variety of different ways for individual ordinary Canadians.
How much impact do you think this call for input is actually going to have on the formation of the new strategy?
It's already had significant impact.
I have been working with department officials and my staff on some ideas around a conceptual framework for this strategy. And the process that we're embarking on through these consultations is to crystallize certain ideas and notions and strategies.
And the only way that you can do that is to hear from, obviously, the academic community, the business leaders. A significant part of success is this whole idea of a fully integrated research and development and innovation ecosystem … In order for that to have some kind of success, we need to hear from all of the people who are involved in it.
The thrust of our programs, some of them we have announced, and our policy choices moving forward, is to try and support and facilitate businesses going to universities and colleges for research and development solutions, (as well as) universities and colleges and polytechnic institutes going to business, and how do we create some incentives, either through tax credits or through literally supporting research and development projects … I hope that what we are signaling here to Canadians is a very thoughtful and comprehensive idea of a science, technology and innovation strategy that everybody's contributed to.
You must have heard critics say the Conservative government doesn't care about science. How do you plan to address that perception?
From the scientists I speak to on campuses across the country, there is a level of frustration with that. It's a bit of a communications exercise because the fact of the matter is that our position in support for research and development, certainly in comparison to the G7, speaks for itself.
We are talking about a brain gain here in Canada, specifically in science, research, development and innovation. Our challenges are to be able to move a lot of that activity and turn it into products that benefit Canadians. We are attracting world-leading researchers in their respective fields and many of these researchers are busy working, and being supported by federal government programs.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Gloria Galloway is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa.