CSPC2014: Policy Makers Should Listen to Policy Experts and Scientists

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by Karine Morin

Science Policy subject editor

Last week marked the sixth Canadian Science Policy Conference, and the fifth I’ve attended. Some topics seem to recur annually: entrepreneurship, the importance and challenges of research collaborations, and big data. However, each meeting also reveals something unexpected.

This year’s unexpected aspect was a session focused on Canada’s defense procurement strategy, presented as an important science, technology, and innovation policy instrument. Being familiar with the notion of the military-industrial complex (thought not its exact origin), and knowing that, in recent years, the government of Canada’s intended acquisition of F-35 fighter jets has been mired in controversy, I was suspicious of this session.

But I quickly came to appreciate that investments on the order of $10B annually could be designed not only to “deliver the right equipment…” but also to “leverage the purchases of defense equipment to create jobs and economic growth in Canada.” Specifically, in assessing bids for defense equipment, the government will consider their “value propositions”: proposals that can enhance the productivity of Canadian firms will gain additional points in the bid process.

The diversity of science policy tools at the disposal of the federal government was also on display in the plenary session discussing a science audit. The Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Julie Gelfand, presented highlights of her recent report, which tackles a number of government responsibilities heavily dependent on the state of scientific knowledge and the application of technology (e.g., mitigating climate change, environmental monitoring of the oilsands, navigation in the Arctic).

Gelfand candidly exposed the limitations of such reports, which can only delve into explicit commitments made by the government. Moreover, the reports are not meant to assess the rationale or soundness of these undertakings (this, in fact, is the role of scientists as voters, and not merely of parliamentarians who make up the Opposition). Rather, they objectively evaluate the extent to which specific undertakings are being fulfilled. The panel and the audience discussed the many different angles from which federal science and technology activities could be evaluated as part of a science audit, including activities within federal labs, the uptake of scientific evidence in policy-making, the effect of trade agreements on science and technology activities…The list was long, which means the science policy community could find itself reading lots of reports in the coming years.

The conversation was a remarkable demonstration of how simple it is to engage a passionate community that is willing to advise, but perhaps still too embryonic to have more robust means at its disposal to influence science policy.

My final take-away from this year’s conference stems from the short remarks offered by the Minister of State (Science and Technology), Ed Holder, which focused on celebrating great Canadian scientists, alive and dead. Quite frankly, our country’s elected politicians should pay closer attention to the breadth and depth of expertise that exists across the Canadian science policy community.

Next year’s CSPC will be held in Ottawa. By then, there will be a new federal strategy on science, technology, and innovation. There may also be a new political landscape – at a minimum there will be at least 30 new MPs, as the number of seats will rise from 308 to 338. This could be a pivotal moment for the science policy community to be heard, and hopefully bloggers will be there to amplify their messages.

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