Political motives suspected for move
The decision by the Quebec government to create a super ministry has raised concerns that the province’s highly regarded innovation plan may be delayed or derailed and that smaller firms may be hindered in their quest to become more innovative. In contrast, bureaucrats describe the creation of the Ministry of Finance, Economy and Research (MFER) as a positive and necessary step to improve the competitiveness of Quebec-based firms.
It certainly strengthens the hand of minister Pauline Marois, who now firmly controls all aspects of provincial economic development from conception to implementation. But many in the academic and business communities disagree with the ration-ale for merging the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology (MRST) with the ministries of Finance and Industry and Commerce. They view the merger as purely political and tied to the sagging fortunes of the Parti Quebecois, which is expected to go to the polls in the near future.
“The merger puts the emphasis on structure rather than serving constituencies and implementing the government’s innovation policy. It will make it more difficult to exercise S&T leadership,” says Dr Camille Limoges, former president of the Counseil de la science et de la technologie (CST) and DM at MRST until last June. “It’s a solution to a problem that was non-existent as far as S&T is concerned. It generates more problems than it solves.”
The creation of MFER strengthens the hand of deputy prime minister Pauline Marois. But MRST is dwarfed by the other two ministries, leading to concerns that its mandate may be weakened or subordinated to bureaucracy directly responsible for economic and financial policy. Marois began using her new title of MFER minister months before the enabling legislation was passed in late December.
Officials contend that not only will the S&T policies of the Parti Quebecois government remain in place, but will be extended throughout the new ministry. MFER’s creation was announced last September, followed by several months of planning and discussion. Several committees were struck to deal with the logistics of implementing the merger and improving linkages between the three bureaucracies..
“The government says its commitment to research, science and technology remains. The policy is successful so why change it,” says Marc Ferland, Assistant DM, responsible for promotion and liaison related to research, science and technology within the MFER. “With MRST, we finally had a coordinated department dedicated to research and innovation and we didn’t want to lose it. The new law maintains our mission and mandate.”
Ferland says the former MRST will be able to enhance regional innovation and assist smaller business by tapping into 16 regional offices operated by the industry and commerce component of the new ministry. In addition, he says liaison with finance officials will be easier now that the ministries have been combined.
“We had good contacts within finance and now they will be even better. We can work inside instead of outside trying to influence the finance department,” he says. “MRST experienced higher financial growth compared to the other departments and Marois is aware of the long-term implications of S&T and the education of people.”
Although several business community leaders have applauded the creation of MFER, at least one says the new administration is too large to be responsive to the requirements of smaller businesses. Michel Audet, president of la Chambre de commerce du Québec (CCQ), says the decision is political rather than economic, and threatens to reverse years of aggressive and successful economic policy.
“The new ministry has two conflicting functions and will not be sustainable. It’s not good to put a department in the position where it has to administer funds for programs and at the same time decide who will get the funds,” says Audet, who previously worked for the provincial government. “It has been done to enforce the political position of Finance. Why give so many powers to one minister. It makes no sense.”
Of particular concern is the impact MFER will have on S&T and R&D activity in the province. Audet says MRST was not given a proper chance to have a lasting impact on innovation in Quebec and that its merger with ministries with a more central economic function is counterproductive.
“We met with (former MRST minister Jean) Rochon many times to develop Quebec’s S&T policy and it has given good results. Now two or three years later they’re changing their minds,” he says. “There’s no justification for that. Essentially it’s a political decision and not an economic one. There’s an election in the near future so you have the point.”
Limoges says that under MRST, relations between industry and the research, science and technology communities was “exemplary”, and that the government risks damaging those collaborative ties. He’s encouraged, however, that the new law creating MFER at least preserves the MRST structure and bureaucracy, as well as the three provincial granting councils and other new measures.
“The law that created MRST has been amended but it’s still there and the new ministry has a responsibility to apply it. This is positive,” he says. “It is not a decision I would have taken but the way in which it was done was probably the best way it could have been done. This is a misstep and I am not happy with what has been done but they’ve made the best of a bad decision.”
Limoges joined other former CST presidents and wrote a letter to Marois criticizing the government’s decision to create MFER.
The CST is also ambivalent about MFER. When the government announced its intention to proceed with the new ministry, CST produced a 17-page memo examining the impact of the merger and made three main points — one positive and two negative. The CST argues that the new ministry represents an opportunity to improve innovation management at the firm level, which it asserts is poor overall.
It concludes, however, that MFER could prevent the new provincial S&T policy from being fully implemented, and that only the economic aspects of innovation will be addressed at the expense of the social side.
“Since the decision was made, we decided not to take any official position and try to express positive action,” says CST president Hélène Tremblay. “The paper was approved by all members of our council. The government’s decision has not convinced many people.” The CST paper can be viewed at www.cst.gouv.qc.ca.