New CSTA report calls for quick action to improve government’s S&T workforce

Guest Contributor
December 16, 2002

The Council of Science and Technology Advisors (CSTA) has weighed in on the contentious issue of the federal government’s S&T workforce and calls for speedy reform on several fronts or risk “failure to fulfill its fundamental mandates and its role in the national innovation system”. The report contains 10 recommendations designed to build intellectual capacity and position the federal civil service as a viable career path for young scientists.

In keeping with CSTA tradition, the latest report boils down its long and unwieldy title down to a catchy acronym. In this case EDGE stands for Employees Driving Government Excellence: Renewing S&T Human Resources in the Federal Public Service.

As with its previous reports, the CSTA avoids addressing the fiscal issues, preferring to focus on horizontal issues. Indeed, most of its recommendations are cultural in nature and can be addressed and implemented without new funding. But Dr Kevin Keough, CSTA deputy chair and Health Canada’s chief scientist, says that doesn’t make the need for change any less urgent.

“The federal government must lead by example. Neglecting to act at this time will have far-reaching consequences, including failure to meet Canada’s objectives to be among the top five R&D performers in the world by 2010.”

— EDGE Report

“The Council holds the view that government science is a really important part of science and innovation in this country,” he says. “If you push the other two parts of the system forward (academe and the private sector) and reduce government’s ability to be there, the government’s investments in S&T will get hung up.”

The CSTA recommends that government target promising young S&T workers early, beginning while they are students and research trainees. And it says that several changes must be implemented to counteract intense competition from the private sector, universities and other nations. That includes enhancing flexibility and productivity by empowering managers through decentralized functions, dramatically shortening the time it takes to make new hires, and remove structural barriers to the flow of talent between government, industry and academe.

The report also tackles growing concern over the use of term employees, calling for a better balance between the use of term staff and those deemed indeterminate or permanent. It notes that the majority of term positions are young employees that experience a high rate of turnover, creating a situation of career instability and lack of institutional memory. Conversely, permanent positions tend to be among older S&T staff.

“This suggests that there is a rigidity in the system and a potential lack of opportunities,” states the report.

The CSTA reports to the Cabinet Committee for the Economic Union and is chaired by secretary of state Dr Rey Pagtakhan. Pagtakhan only recently moved into the position and has attended just one meeting. But he praises the report for its thoughtful recommendations and is anxious to establish timelines for an official government response.

“If we have to hire, we should hire quickly or lose the best in the market,” he says.

The report also recommends supporting and properly funding an S&T community organization to maintain a system for monitoring and forecasting S&T labour market conditions and benchmarking Canadian work conditions and compensation against other countries

A press release accompanying the report suggests that this could be achieved by expanding the role for the existing S&T community management secretariat.


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