Skip to main content

Prime Minister Stephen HarperSean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The first time that John Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology, was asked to write a policy memo for President Barack Obama, he had been warned that no one should give Mr. Obama a memo longer than two pages. Dr. Holdren was suitably succinct. Not long afterwards the memo was returned with a handwritten question from Mr. Obama scrawled across the document: "Where's the rest of it?"

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has not managed to project a similar image, as a leader who is engaged with the details of science policy, receiving expert advice. In part because of a heavy-handed communications policy that impedes public access to federal scientists and the apparent targeting of environmental research for downsizing, the Canadian government has been accused of a lack of interest in, and a hostility toward science.

This picture is incomplete. While some decisions such as the closing of the Experimental Lakes Area have been ill-advised, the federal government is making real efforts to uphold science funding in a tough economy, and giving a much-needed boost to infrastructure. And rather than lacking interest, Mr. Harper has chosen to play an activist role in trying to reshape the nation's research ecosystem, notably by drawing industry into the picture. The crucial question is whether the strategy will work.

What motivates the shift is a common theme across industrial nations: Science plays a key role in innovation, growth and global competitiveness. Although the way in which science translates into prosperity is notoriously hard to track, governments ignore this relationship at their peril. For this reason, both Mr. Harper and Mr. Obama have made it a stated priority to speed the translation of scientific research into commercial applications. Both have been criticized for doing so.

For his part, Mr. Obama is attacked from the right for pushing government resources into commercially relevant research and development, which his opponents say should be driven by market forces. And there have been missteps. The government's loan guarantees to the failed solar-energy company Solyndra was a low point in Mr. Obama's first term, and it managed to hobble one of his administration's science superstars, the Nobel prize-winning former energy secretary, Stephen Chu. But Mr. Obama has pressed on with his applied-science agenda. His latest budget proposal would commit $1-billion to the creation of 15 manufacturing institutes that would engage industry partners and serve as hubs to boost private-sector innovation.

In Canada, Mr. Harper has similarly tried to promote targeted or applied research and industry participation. He has tied a portion of federal research grants to industrial applications including a program to increase applied research in community colleges, and he has initiated a restructuring of the National Research Council that would make it a conduit for applied science that will meet industry needs. In keeping with this thrust, Genome Canada, the federal agency that funds research in genomics, this week announced a new partnership program that would tie grants for research projects to specific end-users – including companies – of the science that results.

Like Mr. Obama, the Prime Minister faces resistance from those who fear a loss of prowess in basic science at the expense of short-term business interests. This is a legitimate concern but the issue has become politically polarized by association with the furor over the Experimental Lakes Area and the muzzling of federal scientists.

The changes to the way science is supported in Canada are taking place against a global backdrop in which the pendulum is swinging away from top-down government-conducted research that was justified by the strategic imperatives of the Cold War. The new model sees research universities as the primary producers of knowledge and as competitors in an international battle for scientific talent. They are aligned with industries that seek to exploit that knowledge for commercial advantage, looking for any edge as they face off against the overwhelming dynamism of the world's emerging economies.

For Canada's researchers, the devil is in the details. Both supporters and critics of Mr. Harper's approach agree that basic and applied research are essential components to the innovation cycle. The debate comes down to how to balance the two. If there's a right answer it has as much to do with what is happening elsewhere in the world as it does the situation here. A commentary released this week by the C.D. Howe Institute captures the opinion of those who would split the difference by supporting the changes to the NRC but advocating that university research should be less narrowly targeted and should be allocated, as much as possible, solely on scientific merit. If he is persuaded by this position, Mr. Harper will have an opportunity to readjust the balance in next year's budget and he would likely win praise for doing so.

Like Mr. Obama, the Prime Minister has access to expert science policy advice, in particular through the Science, Technology and Innovation Council, which he created in 2007. The advice the government solicits from the council is confidential, but it has led to programs such as the Canada Excellence Research Chairs, and the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships, which both aim to attract and retain top scientific talent. (It is telling that the advisory council was not consulted on the Experimental Lakes Area decision.)

In its latest biennial report, the council was unambiguous about Canada's need to address a shortfall in private-sector investment in research and development – a key indicator where the nation's research enterprise, otherwise relatively strong, diverges disappointingly from that of other developed economies.

The council recommends direct and decisive investment to improve this situation and Mr. Harper seems to be doing so. It remains to be seen whether Canadian industry will respond to the incentive by growing an innovation culture that yields economic returns or whether the government's investments will simply be taken as a free ride by a business sector that is either too small, too risk-averse or too much a creature of foreign ownership to commit substantially to Canadian research.

Far from ignoring science, Mr. Harper, like his U.S. counterpart, is subjecting his nation's research enterprise to a high-stakes experiment. Much is riding on its success.