Science and technology have been major contributors to the economic prosperity and social well-being of our nation. To maintain that prosperity and the benefits of a competitive, knowledge-based economy, Canada requires new methods to dynamically connect our innovation systems, exchange ideas and foster collaboration and coordination.
The modern knowledge-based economy of the 21st century is dependent on the efficient interaction and coordination of various segments of civil society. The 2005 OECD report on The Measurement of Scientific and Technological Activities indicates that: “knowledge and technology have become increasingly complex, raising the importance of links between firms and other organizations as a way to acquire specialized knowledge.”
In a complex world of interrelated sciences, emerging technologies and interconnected global hubs of scientific research, innovation is more than stirring up a mixture of money and talents and expecting commercialization to take place. Sustaining innovation and competitiveness requires an upgraded infrastructure and proper channels of connectivity among various elements – local, national and global – of the S&T enterprise. The involvement of organizations such as universities, research hubs, industry, governments and even international agencies are essential for an environment that fosters innovation. Local and national policies as well as international diplomacy all impact a knowledge-based economy.
Despite Canada’s strong research infrastructure, proper channels for interaction among the various stakeholders are still lacking. Canada must upgrade the mechanisms for coordination and collaboration across areas of research, between science and policy, and among academia, government, business and the philanthropic sectors.
Yet the 2008 state of the nation report published by the Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC) emphasized the current lack of interaction among stakeholders. The report indicates that sustaining high levels of interaction among stakeholders is a challenge for Canada’s S&T community. That message was repeated in the canada@150 research report on Maximizing Canada’s Engagement in the Global Knowledge-Based Economy, published by the federal government’s Policy Research Initiative. The report recommends a change in how Canada engages and participates in the global knowledge economy, with more partnership among government, industry sectors, academia and the public. It also suggests that building innovation networks within and beyond our borders is an important key to success.
Two mechanisms are the essential elements of any new strategy.
The first is a national and inclusive dialogue across sectors, disciplines and regions. This discourse should represent the geographic and demographic diversity of our country. To date, two notable initiatives have created positive waves and contributed to filling the gap. One was a grassroots effort to organize the first Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) in October 2009, which included academia, government and the private sector. The conference generated enormous enthusiasm and hope and is becoming an annual forum (the next conference is in October 2010 in Montreal). The other has been a series of roundtables on innovation organized by the Public Policy Forum, acting on Preston Manning’s call for a science day in May 2009. This series also brought together leaders from different sectors to discuss issues relevant to innovation.
The second is the establishment of new entities to support, initiate and foster collaboration in a coordinated manner among various stakeholders. The canada@150 research report emphasizes the need for creating new institutions to address specific gaps.
A proposal by the organizers of CSPC to establish a Canadian science policy centre is on the table. It would be an arms length organization operating independent of government, academia and the private sector, but very much linked to all of them. The centre would establish best practices for interconnecting stakeholders, creating or enhancing efficient channels of communication; and supporting and promoting initiatives in science policy. Essentially, it would work across sectors to enhance networking, collaboration and cooperation among big business, SMEs, governments and the research sectors to create a more pro-innovation environment.
Recognition for such interconnectivity seems to be gaining serious attention in other countries. In the United Kingdom, the Royal Society has established a science policy centre that is trying to respond to that need. Europe has started efforts toward establishing dialogue and connection among various S&T entities. The Euro Science Open Forum, a biannual conference, is a step in this direction. In the United States, where the landscape is much larger and more complex than anywhere else in the world, the American Association for the Advancement of Science plays a major role in interconnection, especially when it comes to science and policy.
More than ever, the pieces of Canada’s innovation systems need to be connected. Due to our geography and demographic features and our decentralized system of government, a major effort will be required to make the science policy field more dynamic and connected. The S&T community must catch up with the highly vibrant, changing and interconnected world, and sustain and elevate our excellence. The establishment of a hub for science policy activities to connect various elements of our innovation systems seems imperative for a knowledge-based and innovative economy. It should become a national priority.
Mehrdad Hariri is chair of the Canadian Science Policy Conference.