Science Policy in the 2010s: A Decade in Review

7 minute read

Superclusters… a Chief Science Advisor… inclusive innovation… a Scientific Integrity Policy… AI, CRISPR-cas9 and other disruptive technologies… a focus on fundamental science… evidence-based decision-making… What a difference a decade makes! IOG takes a look back at the 2010s and what they meant for Canadian science policy at the federal level.[1]

As we transition to a new year and new decade, there have been many retrospectives of the past decade. And no doubt much will be made in this year 2020 of the notion of perfect vision. As they say, “hindsight is 20/20.” So, let’s begin the year with some hindsight on science policy.

Ten years ago, Canadian science policy was in a tough spot. Media reports chronicled efforts by the Harper Government to ‘muzzle’ government scientists, making it difficult for them to speak to the media or participate in scientific conferences. Tensions were raised in the summer of 2012 with the “Death of Evidence March” that saw hundreds of scientists in white lab coats marching on Parliament Hill in protest of the restrictions on science communications. Fast forward to 2015 and the incoming Liberal Government announced in its first week that scientists could again speak freely about their research. As the decade wound down, federal departments and agencies were busy implementing a new Scientific Integrity Policy adopted in 2018 to protect the openness of government science.[2]

Another major issue for government science during the 2010s concerned the “rust out” of aging research infrastructure. Early in the decade, the major science-based departments and agencies came together to take a more integrated approach to the renewal and governance of federal research facilities but were unable to make much progress. By 2016, with the poor state of facilities often reaching critical levels, the Government announced the Federal S&T Infrastructure Initiative (now Laboratories Canada). Budget 2018 announced $2.8 billion to “renew federal laboratories and promote greater collaboration between federal scientists and academic and private sector researchers.”[3]

Federal science agencies celebrated some major anniversaries during the decade including, in 2016, the centenary of the National Research Council (NRC), one of the crown jewels of Canada’s science system. But not the oldest; a year later, as Canada was celebrating its 150thbirthday along with the departments of agriculture and fisheries and oceans, the venerable Geological Survey of Canada observed its 175thanniversary. Statistics Canada, which regained the long-form census mid-decade, also celebrated its 100thanniversary in 2018.

The NRC as an organization saw considerable evolution through this period. Long viewed by many as the ‘university of the Government of Canada,’ given its traditional emphasis on basic research, the NRC moved quite significantly early in the decade to become more ‘industry-facing,’ supporting ‘business-led’ applied research and commercialization. In recent years, the pendulum has swung back to enable NRC to pursue a more balanced portfolio of fundamental and directed research and innovation support.

One of the enduring characteristics of Canada’s science policy is the revolving door of ministers at the federal level. This remained true in the 2010s with no less than five ministers having lead responsibility for science across the decade. During the Harper years, science was led by a series of three ministers of state. With the arrival of the Trudeau Government, the position was elevated to a full minister of science and filled by a scientist. As the decade closed out, however, the Prime Minister added sports to the portfolio, diluting the focus on science. With the recent cabinet announcement, the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry has the lead and it remains to be seen what impact this will have on the Government’s approach to science. Given that the industry portfolio is quite vast, ranging from automobiles to defence procurement to tourism, it may be more difficult going forward for the scientific community to get the attention of the minister. Supporting decision-making at the political level, and of growing importance and effectiveness, is the Deputy Minister Science Committee chaired by the DM Champion for Science (a scientist herself) – a body and a position that did not exist a decade ago.

Within the science advisory space, Canada continued its experimentation with various mechanisms. Perhaps the most important change was the (re-)creation of the position of Chief Science Advisor (CSA) in 2017, with a mandate to push open science and evidence-based decision-making. To further enhance the advisory ecosystem, the CSA is working with federal departments to name departmental science advisors. The Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC) provided advice to the Minister of Industry during the Harper years but its operations were marked by a severe lack of transparency of its charges and recommendations. As the decade closed, the Liberals were still in the process of setting up the Council on Science and Innovation to replace the STIC. Finally, the Council of Canadian Academies received funding renewals by governments of both political stripes during the decade and delivered its 50threport since 2005, including a major study at the request of Parliament on medical assistance in dying. The CCA has secured its position within the science advisory landscape as the go-to organization for evidence-based assessments of public policy issues.

On the international scene, there were also important changes. Champions such as the Rt. Hon. David Johnston, Governor-General of Canada (2010-2017), and others, sought to raise the profile of Canada’s scientific accomplishments globally. By the end of the decade, Canadian researchers were recognized with three Nobel prizes and a Fields medal. Canada was involved in international ‘big science’ projects such as the Thirty Meter Telescope and discovery of the Higgs boson. More generally, the decade saw a renewed emphasis on ‘science diplomacy’ as a way of mobilizing the scientific community to advance the nation’s global interests.

Other major trends that emerged or gained significant strength during the 2010s include open science, citizen science, and knowledge mobilization. With the priority on reconciliation, the role of Indigenous traditional knowledge received greater emphasis, especially within a revised impact assessment process. The latter part of the decade also saw an increasing focus on gender and issues of equity, diversity and inclusion. To foster innovation, Canada continued to experiment with various support programs including the Canada First Research Excellence Fund and the Innovation Superclusters initiative that is investing nearly a billion federal dollars to transform regional innovation ecosystems in areas such as AI, advanced manufacturing and oceans. In 2019, Canada announced that the Networks of Centres of Excellence would sunset, an announcement that was met with much criticism.

The three research granting councils, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and Genome Canada all enjoyed significant budget growth and each gained new leadership during the 2010s. The decade also saw the emergence of important new institutions within Canada’s broader science ecosystem. These include the Canadian Science Policy Centre whose annual conference matured throughout the decade to become a major feature of the landscape. Other key players now include Evidence for Democracy as a science advocacy organization founded in the wake of the Death of Evidence march, the U15 club of the largest research universities, and the creation at Mitacs of the Canadian Science Policy Fellowship program, now in its fourth cohort of fellows.

There is a saying that ‘history is just one damned thing after another.’ The history of Canadian science policy can be seen as just one policy review after another, and the 2010s were no different. Throughout the decade, three major expert panel reviews influenced the trajectory of Canadian science policy. First up in 2011 was the Jenkins panel focused on federal support for business R&D and innovation. The report generated a great deal of attention, although some of its recommendations remain unrealized and private sector expenditures on R&D continued to fall throughout the decade. In 2014 came the Knox panel on government science and technology. This report enjoyed less public profile but was influential internally and as input to transition to the new government in 2015. Finally, of course, there was the 2017 Naylor panel review of fundamental science that helped drive investments in academic research and support for early career researchers. The three major reviews, while advancing the debate, each focussed on just one of the three components of the so-called Triple Helix science ecosystem (i.e., private sector, government and universities). As we consider next steps for the 2020s, it may be timely to take a ‘whole ecosystem’ approach to understanding the needs and opportunities for science across all parts of the system.

In the decade ahead, we can expectongoing emphasis on science and innovation policy and governance, underscoring the need for greater capacity at the intersection of these rapidly evolving areas. At the IOG we look forward to continuing to build leadership capacity in science and innovation in support of a public service for the 21stcentury.

This article does not capture the decade’s significant activity in science policy at other levels of jurisdiction.

The IOG Science & Innovation area of practice is proud to be supporting these efforts.

Canada’s Science Vision:

About the author

Jeff Kinder

Jeff Kinder

Executive Director - Science and Innovation

Jeff has over 30 years of experience in government science, technology and innovation policy in the US and Canada. His US experience includes the National Science Foundation, the National Academies and the Naval Research Laboratory.

In Canada, Jeff has worked at Industry Canada, Natural Resources Canada and the Council of Science and Technology Advisors (CSTA). In 2014, he supported the Knox Panel on Government Science and Technology. Most recently, he led the Federal S&T Secretariat supporting the Minister of Science, the Deputy Minister Champion for Federal Science and related initiatives, including the Federal S&T Infrastructure Initiative (now Laboratories Canada). Jeff is currently on interchange with the Institute on Governance.

At the University of Ottawa, Jeff is a Fellow of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy (ISSP) and Adjunct at the Telfer School of Management. Jeff is a board member of the Canadian Science Policy Centre and a member of the Advisory Council of the Mitacs Canadian Science Policy Fellows program.

He is co-editor with Paul Dufour of A Lantern on the Bow: A History of the Science Council of Canada and its Contributions to the Science and Innovation Policy Debate (Invenire, 2018). He holds a PhD in public policy, a Master’s in science, technology and public policy, and a BS in physics.

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