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CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2007

Feds National Science & Tech Strategy Gives Industry More Say

The federal government wants to boost university-business links and give industry more say over how the granting councils operate as part of a new national science and technology strategy intended to strengthen Canada’s economy.

The Conservative government’s Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage is designed to reverse what is seen as Canada’s poor innovation performance through increased research and development investment that links the “competitive energy” of entrepreneurs to the “creative genius” of Canada’s scientists.

“Our goal is to make it easier for businesses to create and commercialize new products and services,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said last month in announcing the strategy at Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. “If we do not improve, Canada will become a poorer, weaker country.”

But CAUT executive director James Turk says the plan put forward by the government could hinder scientific innovation by tying university researchers too closely to the demands of the private sector.

“Private firms aren’t really interested in the traditional focus on basic research in universities,” Turk said. “Yet, it’s been discoveries in basic science that have fuelled innovation and led to the majority of important new applications of commercial significance.”

While the strategy mentions the importance of maintaining government funding for basic research, Turk says the overall focus is on giving businesses more influence over university research.

“The strategy is unbalanced and some of the proposals raise serious concerns about their impact on the independence and integrity of university research,” he said.

The government says it will strengthen university-industry partnerships through the creation of new business-led networks under the Networks of Centres of Excellence program, new Centres of Excellence in Commercialization and Research and a new tri-council private-sector advisory board for the granting councils to “provide advice on the implementation of business driven” initiatives.

The Conservatives are also planning changes to the governance structure of the granting councils, including appointing more business representatives to the council’s governing bodies to “ensure that the composition … reflects Canada’s broad economic and national interests.”

The government’s plan focuses federal support for R&D in four key areas of national interest where Canada can build “global research and commercial leadership”: natural resources, the environment, health, and information technology.

“While it’s good to identify some national priorities, we do have concerns this means the government will take more liberty with picking specific research projects to fund in the future and the research community will have less of a say,” Turk said.

The federal 2007–2008 budget, he added, may have signaled this when $105 million of new funding was announced for selected research centres without any peer-review process.

“While the centres that received the money were no doubt worthy recipients,” Turk said, “the lack of a proper and thorough peer review is troubling.”

The science and technology strategy also involves a shake-up in government science agencies and departments, with plans to move as many as five government laboratories to universities and the private sector.

“This is disturbing because in many cases it is absolutely essential that science be performed by government departments, especially when it comes to activities supporting health and safety and environmental regulations,” Turk said.

Funding for the strategy will come from the $9.2 billion already allocated for science and technology expenditures in the current budget.

Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage is available for download here.