Coordination considered key as proposed international S&T initiatives go to Cabinet for consideration in next Budget

Guest Contributor
June 30, 2000

Nearly $300 million in new money is on the table for international science and technology (S&T) but disagreement over how some of the funds will be managed could still derail the tangle of inter-related proposals now going forward for government consideration. The largest of the proposed initiatives - a $150-million fund to facilitate Canadian participation in international research projects - is also the most contentious. Contained in a draft report by an expert panel of the Advisory Council on S&T (ACST), the proposed management of the fund by Industry Canada and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) has been the focus of heated debate during the panel's private consultations with stakeholders.

Participants in those consultations say the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) is shaping up as the most likely fund manager, given its arms-length status and the prospect of a full blown turf war should the task be handed to one of the science-based departments and agencies (SBDAs).

After years of lobbying, the federal government finally appears to be turning its attention and financial resources to various facets of international S&T. The ACST expert panel's proposed fund and the allocation of $100 million to the CFI for Canadian participation in international joint ventures are the two largest components.

In addition to the special fund, the ACST expert panel has also recommended an infusion of $20 million into the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP), which would be given an expanded mandate to support the international S&T efforts of smaller businesses. And the rapidly evolving Genome Canada program will also have an international component that could conceivably dovetail with the National Research Council's portion of an Atlantic Canada innovation strategy currently being finalized in Ottawa.

If government endorses and implements all the proposals, they promise to significantly raise Canada's level of participation on the international stage and increase the country's profile after years of decline. Since the balancing of the federal Budget last year, Ottawa has moved to restore and increase funding for many aspects of Canadian research, but little has been done to address the needs of those who seek to collaborate on the world stage.

RE$EARCH MONEY spoke with several individuals familiar with the ACST draft report and all agree that the new $150 million fund and increased funding to IRAP are strong proposals that could greatly benefit international S&T activity in the private sector and enhance government and university collaboration. The special fund has not been fleshed out in any detail, but it would likely be allocated using an open competition in which any player could apply to receive support for projects of limited duration.

The special fund could also be coordinated with the CFI's forthcoming $100-million International Joint Venture Fund, which goes to the CFI board for approval on July 25. CFI president Dr David Strangway declined to reveal the specific details of the fund until his board considers it, but acknowledged that considerable effort has been expended to ensure is works effectively. As for its interaction with the ACST-proposed special fund, he says it's still too early to say how it might work.

But the central challenge remains that of governance, or more specifically which body will be responsible for coordinating international S&T activity. If a fund is established, S&T players throughout the country will be keen on gaining a piece of the action.

"The overall (draft) report is very good but the key element is coordination, because there is so much turf protection going on in many departments," says Dr Howard Alper, the Univ of Ottawa's VP research and a long-time promoter of increased international collaboration. "It has to be to the greatest benefit of researchers in all sectors so coordination has to be well thought out. ... If it's done right, the whole system flies. If it's not, then who knows?"

CFI considered best bet

Dr Denis St-Onge, chair of the Partnership Group on Science and Engineering (PAGSE), is also concerned that the proposed management of a fund by DMs from Industry Canada and DFAIT could spell trouble. "It's a recipe for disaster and most people at the Ottawa consultation agreed. The best mechanism is to modify the CFI and give them responsibility," he says.

Following the consultations, St-Onge sent a letter to ACST expert panel chair Dr René Simard, reiterating PAGSE's preference for a "centralized coordinating and funding body, independent of, or at least arms length from, individual government departments and granting councils." Should government reject the CFI concept, PAGSE is also recommending the proposed National Academies of Canada (R$, June 9/00) or the National Research Council, accompanied by a new mandate and additional resources. If all of the above fail to attract the necessary government cachet, Industry Canada would be given the nod due to its extensive experience with S&T issues, polices and programs.

PAGSE is also recommending that the organization given responsibility should report as closely as possible to the Cabinet level, possibly to a joint House of Commons-Senate S&T committee.

DFAIT is currently the main vehicle for international S&T promotion and coordination, but the unit responsible for those activities is small and understaffed. There are concerns that the creation of a new fund along with other proposed initiatives will place intolerable strain on its existing resources.


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