Architect of Quebec S&T policy critical of recent government changes to key research and innovation organizations

Guest Contributor
April 9, 2010

Exclusive On-line interview with Dr Camille Limoges

The Quebec government has some serious explaining and accounting to do following several controversial initiatives in its March 30th Budget, according to a key architect of science and technology policy in the province. The Liberal administration of Jean Charest sent shock waves through the S&T community when it decided - apparently without prior consultation - to abolish the highly regarded Council of Science and Technology (CST), integrate the three provincial research granting councils into a single agency and launch an undefined update and extension of its 2006 Quebec Research and Innovation Strategy (QRIS).

Dr Camille Limoges says the moves are both mystifying and worrisome, particularly the termination of the CST which has provided government with arm's length, independent S&T advice to successive governments for more than 30 years. He adds that the government's stated intention to transfer the CST's function and activities to the Ministry of Economic Development, Innovation and Export Trade (MDEIE) threatens the quality of S&T advice the government currently receives from the CST.

"It's a very unwise decision. The Council played a very important role since the 1970s in Quebec ... It was very effective as a think tank to keep political decision makers at the forefront of research and innovation policy in the world," says Limoges, a respected academic who was president of the CST for three years in the late 1990s and served two terms as DM in charge of innovation policy within the provincial government. "It will be an entirely different sort of advice. I'm afraid the role the Council played will be eaten up by the other functions of the ministry."

Limoges says the independence of the CST assured that the government was receiving expert advice from sources external to government, allowing the CST to make observations and recommendations that may not have been politically popular. Recent appointments of government bureaucrats to head up the CST and two of the three provincial research granting councils, he cautions, could compromise the quality of advice the government receives about future direction and steps to improve innovation and competitiveness.

"As civil servants their loyalty has to be divided ... These people are in an impossible situation," says Limoges. "This government made these decisions to replace the research administration. There will need to be a new law to organize the integration of the three Fonds and I expect there will be strong opposition."

The growing bureaucratization of Quebec's research and innovation activity is exemplified by grouping the granting councils - Fonds de le recherche en santé du Quebec (FRSQ) , Fonds québécois de la recherché sur la nature et les technologies (FQRNT) and Fonds québécois de la recherché sur la société et la culture (FQRSC) - within a single agency. Limoges says he's mystified by the rationale behind the move, considering their successful track records and the distinct research cultures each council serves.

"It's equally unwise (as the abolishment of the CST). If it's purely budgetary there will be no significant savings ... There is no gain in terms of policy decisions and no financial gains," says Limoges, adding that Quebec will lose the complementarity it enjoyed by matching its research council structure to that of the federal granting councils. "A lot of effort and money will be spent on restructuring and shifting people right and left. Moreover, I really worry about how a board responsible for three funds can do it in a reasonable fashion. I've been really impressed with the quality of the boards of the three provincial councils. A single board will lack that in-depth expertise and broad knowledge. The Fonds have been told that the three cultures will be respected but we know this is a meaningless statement."

Limoges is slightly more optimistic about the government's decision to update and extend the QRIS, which was last revised in 2006 and funded with a commitment of $888 million in new money over three years (R$, December 11/06). That strategy was itself an overhaul of the 2001 version which Limoges helped formulate while DM of the former Ministry of Research, Science and Technology (R$, February 15/01). Government innovation strategies must be flexible and allowed to evolve as the greater research and innovation environment changes. But Limoges says the lack of information on how the strategy has been implemented to date must be addressed before any changes are made.

"We have no information on how the action plan and strategy (of the current QRIS) have been implemented. There's been no public follow-up on how much was spent on the various programs," he says. "We expect that the (strategy's) spending started much more slowly than expected and that there is probably much left over from previous years ... We must be provided with a new strategy statement in May or we will know very little about how successful the first phase of the strategy was."

Limoges says he's aware of problems faced by the managers of Quebec's research organizations and centres in retaining personnel when there was no stability in funding - a situation compounded by MDEIE's tendency to schedule funding announcements close to the expiry of previous commitments.

"In recent years it was impossible to have a clear view of how well the strategy was doing. The people in the research organizations and centres had serious problems managing," he says.

This is not the first time Limoges has criticized the Charest government over its S&T policy. In 2006, he and several members of the Council of Partners for Innovation resigned after the government ignored its recommendations for new S&T initiatives (R$, April 14/06).


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