There is little doubt that the federal government is reshaping the public service. In science, the government is also looking in new directions, with an emphasis on creating value through the private sector. Gary Goodyear, Minister of State, Science and Technology, spoke with editor-in-chief Toby Fyfe.
What do you see as the connection between innovation and national competitiveness?
Well, I think when you compare us to our peer nations, Canada has some of the top post-secondary institutions, a well-skilled labour force, and, according to some experts, far too many programs that help Canadians and businesses succeed. That said, though, we are in fact number one in a number of areas, and that’s a good news story.
But we’re not number one in some areas that are very important. We are not number one in business expenditure on research and development. We’re trying to identify those reasons and assist business by making changes both in the programs and how we do business as a government to close those gaps; to, in fact, literally create the environment and provide the tools with which businesses can better succeed in a changing global environment.
In Budget 2012, a theme related to science and innovation was that the government is going to make it easier for business-led initiatives and easier for the private sector to generate wealth by moving from indirect to direct support. Is the notion to move faster, more efficiently, or both?
I would say both. Right off the bat, the first priority is more efficiency. Obviously we want to make sure we return to balanced budgets. But time is of the essence in terms of innovative capacity. So we want to move there quicker than we were going ten years ago.
It is time that the government takes a role in encouraging businesses to recognize the need to be innovative, and become, as a result, more globally competitive. Things have changed, markets have changed, and products have changed, so the majority of our Canadian businesses, while many do great research and development, could always do more.
Is it correct to say that the government’s short-term goal is to translate public research into knowledge for the private sector?
Well, the Expert Panel leading the Review of Federal Support to R&D, led by Tom Jenkins, said we had to find a better balance. There are far too many programs, which not only confuses business but also makes them accessible only to the few that do know about them.
The other identified issue was that we needed to find a better balance between direct and indirect support. And we have had more investment in science and technology as well as a plan. Let me just tell you in very brief terms what that plan was. You will remember the Knowledge Infrastructure Program. Ultimately that program ended up being over five billion dollars spent specifically on improving infrastructure at our colleges and universities. The second thing we did, pretty much at the same time, was to provide three quarters of a billion dollars that had to be matched to the Canada Foundation for Innovation to put state-of-the-art equipment in those buildings. The third thing we did was fund to significant levels things like our Vaniers, our Banting post-doctoral fellows, the Canada Research Chairs, the Canada Excellence Research Chairs – those alone are $10 million over seven years.
You can see just briefly that we now have a brain gain. We have the equipment for those people to use in brand-new buildings across the country. We are now focusing on the other end of the spectrum. The balance, the natural next step for the nation, is to look at those areas where we can make sure that Canada and Canadians are getting the maximum benefits out of these tax dollars.
Are you concerned that the various players – the private sector, universities, the federal government, the provinces – run the risk of becoming a highly fragmented system?
We all have areas to continue to improve on efficiency, but I will say that no perfect storm lasts forever. Over the past couple of years in the science and tech file, as well as the economic development file, what I have seen is a remarkable team effort. I believe I can say with fairness that the provinces are working hard with us, the universities and colleges are working hard with us, and now, as I say, our focus is the natural next step, the business side of the innovation and job creation section of this plan. And I have to tell you that I see folks working more and more side by side, working together, not competing against each other, but getting the bigger picture, working together as a team to compete against the world.
One of the concerns with this focus on direct, as opposed to indirect or pure science, is that we will lose pure science capacity and possibly knowledge in the longer-term. Are you worried about that?
Not in the least. The last time the nation faced a recession – nothing of this magnitude – we saw governments cut science and technology. This government has taken entirely the opposite approach. We are now at historic levels of investment in all areas of science from the Perimeter Institute and the Institute for Quantum Computing in Ontario all the way through to Triumph and Neptune in British Columbia, as well as more funding for the next-generation medical isotopes and so on. We have a very strong respect for all levels of science, and why wouldn’t we? The economies of the future, whether it’s ten years from now or 50 years from now, will be bolstered by the discoveries from the investments we make today in basic research.
We have a very balanced approach, now approaching $12 billion per year in science and technology, the full range. I can tell you that when we took government, it was around $5 billion. So for every scientist, whether they’re applied or they run their own companies, or they are on the pure discovery end of something, there is more money for more work. In every spectrum. I don’t see that changing.
This government has provided funding for every level because we respect that those areas that are closest to market will help us now and we need to maximize that, and those areas that are furthest away, the pure, basic discoveries are, in fact, the power for commerce in the future.
What’s the cost to Canada if we can’t get better at innovation and performance?
The Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity estimates the cost to our productivity differential with the United States at over $100 billion a year. I’m not talking about working harder; in fact, quite the opposite: working smarter, adopting the latest technologies, spending money on research, every single business in every sector finding new ways of doing things or new materials to be used in the product they’re making. A different way, for example, to do a procedure or a process. Working smarter and improving our productivity closer to where it should be could translate into ten to fifteen thousand additional income dollars for every family in Canada.
Some businesses say, well, the Canadian dollar has been a very good thing for me, or I’m doing okay – this is a common one that I hear – Canada’s doing okay, what is the need for us to push that envelope? And I say to them, yes, Canada is doing okay, better than most, that’s a good news story. But the world is changing.