Innovation, R&D and the environment rank high in Speech From the Throne and Prime Minister's response

Guest Contributor
February 12, 2001

For supporters of new and enhanced measures to stimulate the New Economy, the Speech From the Throne and the Prime Minister's official response contained all the right sign posts and expressions. From their prominently positioned sections on innovation and their repetition of Finance minister Paul Martin's pledge to double federal R&D spending by 2010, both addresses forcefully made the case for increased investments in innovation and science and technology (S&T) as the key to the nation's future prosperity.

Given the tradition behind both speeches, however, it's no surprise that they were virtually devoid of any specific measures, although Prime Minister Jean Chr├ętien came close in his references to the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), Genome Canada and government research. And there was certainly no timetable given for any future funding, which has many in the S&T community worried that any urgent pressures won't be addressed until the next formal Budget, due sometime between October/01 and February/02.

This spells particular trouble for the proposed $388-million Canadian Neutron Facility (CNF) which has been before Cabinet for two years. RE$EARCH MONEY has learned that Cabinet will debate the future of the CNF in early March as part of a larger discussion on whether it should continue to fund the atomic energy option in Canada.

A source close to the file says that if the government decides to continue funding, it may still decide to restructure Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (AECL), which has become a financial sink hole due to its failure to find new customers for its CANDU reactors. One scenario could see AECL broken into three parts - CANDU development and sales, decommissioning of nuclear sites and a research division comprised of the CNF and the crown agency's MAPLE reactors.

The Canadian Alliance party has shown considerable interest in the CNF file, particularly S&T critic Preston Manning and Cheryl Gallant, the newly elected MP for the riding that includes Chalk River ON - the proposed site of the CNF.

In an interview following the throne speech, Dr Gilbert Normand, secretary of state for science, research and development, said the government must decide whether Canada needs its own capability in this area, or simply gain access to similar facilities in other countries.

"Should we have our own centre or work with another country like the US or France," said Normand. "For telescopes we share fees and time for research, so we could buy time for research at foreign research centres."

Normand says that in the weeks and months ahead, he will be working with Industry minister Brian Tobin to develop the government's position on issues such as the regulation of biotechnology, human cloning, stem cell research and reproductive technologies, with the view to addressing the concerns of Canadians and harmonizing with other nations.

CIHR HOPEFUL

The CIHR is reacting favourably to the throne speech and PM's address - both of which committed more funding to the new health research agency. With just one year remaining in its current funding envelope, CIHR has been increasingly concerned that it won't be able to accurately make long-term funding commitments to its researchers (R$, December 20/00). That sentiment has improved dramatically, and CIHR Dr Alan Bernstein is now convinced that the government's endorsement of the importance of research means it will make the necessary funding announcements in a timely manner.

"After a four-year battle to get R&D on the government radar screen, it's now the cornerstone. The entire research community got more attention than I was expecting .It could not have received a stronger endorsement," says Bernstein, adding that while he wasn't expecting any details on further CIHR funding, he's still anxious for some sort of announcement.

"We are a new organization with a broad and bold new mandate and this is the time to be bold and give us the funding to stay in harmony with that vision."

Bernstein says he was also impressed with the fact the four cornerstones of the throne speech - research and innovation, children, Aboriginal Canadians and the health care system - all relate to CIHR's all-encompassing mandate for health research.

"The CIHR is the key to all four of these areas. The time now is to encourage the government and not to be critical. I would encourage researchers and not just in the health area to write to MPs, the ministers of Industry and Health. They need the feedback," says Bernstein.

Normand says he could not shed any light on when a CIHR funding announcement might be made, adding that the government must first look at its priorities in S&T, including the granting agencies and overhead costs of federally funded university research.

In the context of a clean environment, the throne speech also stated that the role of the National water Research Institute (NWRI) would be strengthened, although once again details are lacking. With facilities in Burlington ON and Saskatoon, the NWRI is part of Environment Canada and conducts ecosystem-based research into aquatic ecosystems as they relate to environmental issues of regional, national or international significance. The throne speech also committed to R&D investments and advanced information systems to improve land use and lessen the impact of industrial and agricultural activities on surface and ground water.

The university community also seems generally pleased with the tone and contents of the throne speech and the PM's response, applauding its emphasis on increased investment in R&D and skills and learning. The throne speech addressed learning as an urgent issue spanning all ages and regions from basic literacy to advanced skills and entrepreneurial spirit.

"In the Prime Minister's response, he said the government needs to work with universities to ensure that we are in a good position to contribute to the innovation agenda," says Sally Brown senior VP of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. "The government is making all the right signals, although if the Prime Minister had said he would fund indirect costs at 40% we would have been a whole lot happier."

The throne speech also emphasized the importance of the government's Connectedness Agenda, mentioning the work of the National Broadband Task Force, the Community Access Program and a renewed emphasis on content for SchoolNet.

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