Consensus emerging on need for Canada to integrate innovation & foreign policy

Guest Contributor
October 3, 2003

A growing number of players from all sectors of the innovative economy are helping to raise the possibility of using Canadian science and technology to assist developing nations. The latest indication came in a September 18 speech by Paul Martin to the Montreal Board of Trade. In an address remarkable for the clarity of its view of S&T, Martin ended with a compelling argument for sharing Canada’s R&D expertise with the world’s poor.

Martin’s call for sharing the wealth comes less than two months after his acceptance of an invitation to co-chair a United Nations Commission on the Private Sector and Development. And it suggests that as prime minister, he will make a concerted effort to meld domestic and foreign policy at a level not seen since the 1960s and the government of Lester Pearson. The prospect of employing S&T to increase Canada’s presence in the international development arena has energized those already working in the field.

“There are other very senior politicians who have been involved in this and been involved in foreign policy for a long time, who see this as perhaps a credible role internationally for Canada. If we come together and push, there’s a lot we can contribute both to our own innovation system and the rest of the world,” says Dr Peter Singer, director of the Univ of Toronto’s Joint Centre for Bioethics (JCB) and a CIHR Distinguished Investigator. “I thought (Paul Martin’s speech) was hugely innovative, very inspiring and could potentially offer a role for Canada in the world where it can make a terrific contribution to some of these import- ant global challenges.”

The Martin speech follows a similar address by Industry minister Alan Rock to the Global Biotechnology Forum in Washington last June. While that speech focused on biotechnology, it also connected the message of global responsibility to the issue of security. Rock also made reference to the Top 10 Biotechnologies for Improving Health in Developing Countries, an influential study released by the JCB last year. Many consider the report, of which Singer was one of six authors, a major factor in helping to raise the visibility of innovation and international development ( see chart).

“The role of a country is to include as an explicit part of its foreign policy that kind of common effort,” stated Rock. “If we don’t, we will not only have failed to meet a fundamental moral obligation as human beings, but we will also have missed an opportunity to deal with issues that go directly to our own security and stability as a world.”

Momentum is already moving beyond rhetoric towards the development of potential mechanisms to strategically deliver Canadian S&T to the developing world. A recent meeting was held by International Development Research Centre (IDRC) to initiate discussions on identifying areas of potential collaboration. It attracted the heads of all the granting councils and senior officials from many departments and agencies, and is indicative of the growing interest for combining innovation and foreign policies.

“Why not develop a specific, and perhaps commercial, expertise here in Canada and create new technologies,

therapies and services that can be taken advantage of by developing countries. For us in Canada, it is an opportunity

to do the right thing.”— Paul Martin Speech, Sept.18/03

“I see it as a convergence between domestic innovation policy and foreign policy and as integral to pursuing our foreign policy goals…. We’d like to see national leadership at the highest levels on a matter like this, and see cooperation between Industry Canada, Environment Canada, DFAIT and the funding agencies…I’d like to get them all rolling in the same direction,” says Singer. “What you’re really talking about is integrating domestic innovation policy and our foreign policy in a way that’s not done. I hope that in seven years it will be well recognized that this is a key role for Canada … using genomic diplomacy and more broadly S&T diplomacy to reach out in a very innovative way using our innovation agenda for those five billion people in developing countries.”


Singer’s JCB has submitted a letter of intent for the next Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) competition for a proposed Canadian International Network for Development and Innovation. Details are scarce, but the proposed NCE would include a process for identifying appropriate projects as well as private sector players willing to engage in public-private partnerships for addressing specific problems and challenges.

Singer is also involved in discussions for a proposed new institute at the National Research Council (NRC). Tentatively entitled the Institute for Developmental Science and Technology, it represents a whole new area for the NRC, addressing the social and economic needs of developing nations in areas such as pervasive diseases, diagnostics, technology transfer and ocean research to name a few. Planning for the proposed Institute is in the early stages and its principals are reluctant to discuss the concept until it is developed further.

Yet another mechanism being pursued is that of a dedicated fund that could drive collaboration on specific projects between public science organizations and private sector players.

“The best approach is probably to do all of the mechanisms and make sure they fit together,” says Singer. “The next key step is to make sure that this vision has widespread resonance and that in talking about mechanisms we all stay on the same page in terms of prosecuting our fundamental goals.”

Singer also points out that the benefits to Canada of pursuing such a policy also have an economic dimension. Helping to tackle health and social problems serves to strengthen countries that can be future customers for Canadians goods and services.

“Positioning Canada early can be a very good thing,” he says. “That’s why we’re talking about health innovation systems in developing countries which have both the private and public sectors.”


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