The Quebec government has released the most comprehensive policy document on science and technology (S&T) in its history and the first to be released in 19 years, as it maps out its vision for the future to make Quebec a world hub of the knowledge economy. Released January 25, Savoir changer le monde (Knowledge to Change the World) is the first salvo in a major strategic thrust to significantly boost R&D spending and knowledge dissemination in the province and ensure that its impact is felt throughout society.
At its most fundamental level, the science policy is carefully built around a framework of four mechanisms and three principles for boosting knowledge and innovation. To achieve its goals, the Quebec government is aiming at boosting provincial R&D spending as a percentage of provincial gross domestic product (PGDP) from its current 2.1 to the G-7 average of 2.47 between 2006 and 2010. Such an increase would require an additional $800 million in R&D spending, or 20% higher than spending recorded in 1998. Private sector spending would remain constant at about two thirds of the total, but the projections do not account for an increase PGDP, nor an increase in the G-7 average.
Sources within the provincial government say that Jean Rochon, minister for Research, Science and Technology (MRST) is currently seeking a commitment of government R&D spending of between $500 million and $1.5 billion annually, which would allow the policy to be implemented. The additional R&D spending will be largely focused on leveraging funding from private and public, national and international sources. The spending will also be consolidated in key strategic sectors - aerospace, information and communication technology, geomatics, photonics, nanotechnology, life sciences and technology (health, pharmaceuticals, genomics and proteomics), agrifood biotechnology, environmental biotechnology and aquaculture.
Now that the policy has been made public, Rochon says that an inter-ministerial committee which he chairs (see chart at right) will finalize spending priorities within the government funding envelope, and begin a three-year implementation phase.
"We have presented a policy with structural measures integrated into it...In the first year of the three-year policy implementation, we will see where the government needs to inject funding. We will also partner with the federal government to increase federal research funding in the province," says Rochon. "Our approach will be to preserve existing programs, modify and improve others, and new programs will also emerge. I hope that in the next Budget there will be the first indications for the next three years."
Helene Trembley, president Quebec's Council of Science and Technology (CST) says she expects Rochon already has a deal on what new spending initiatives will be included in the next Budget, expected in late March.
"I believe Rochon already has a deal for the policy and they already have a basic idea of where they will spend," she says. "He is quite courageous. Many ministers before him tried to release a policy and they did not succeed. Many stakeholders were very sensitive to this topic at the beginning."
Trembley says the CST is generally very pleased with the new policy, particularly since many of the recommendations it has made in recent years found a voice in the 163-page document. The CST also made suggestions during the extensive consultation phase last summer, such as a stronger emphasis on the contribution of private enterprise to a system of innovation.
Indeed, Rochon says that the process of consultation was instrumental in his ministry actually broadening the policy's scope. Originally focused on S&T and innovative products to be commercialized, the policy now includes a much wider definition than merely economic development as an end in itself. The policy also gives the CST two new mandates: the creation of a new commission on ethics, and a committee focused on group exchange within scientific culture.
"Now the goal is to improve the well being of the population through economic development, social progress and culture," says Rochon. "The first consequence (of the changes) is that the policy is now aimed at researchers but also at users of the applications of S&T. Montreal is still a main focus, but we also need to develop regional capacity."
"The role of government is to help create the environment for research and innovation, and intervene as partners with researchers and the business world"-
Jean Rochon, MRST minister
As always, no Quebec S&T document would be complete without a section on the federal R&D presence and activities within the province. The policy targets the issue of indirect costs for university research and once again contends that Quebec continues to fall short of receiving its fair share of federal R&D investment.
Rochon avoids any excessive exacerbation of this contentious issue, but he does say that Quebec wants to increase federal-provincial collaboration.
"We have good documentation in terms of demographics and equity (of federal R&D spending) and we want to partner with the federal government to increase federal research spending," he says. "We want to have the capacity to develop and innovate for the whole of Canada, and use our funds to leverage this and, with private partners, target fields where development is possible. This policy is realistic and it's also a call to action for Ottawa and industry."
Like all governments' however, Quebec is planning in the midst of economic uncertainty, with the possibility of a slowdown or even a recession threatening to impinge upon future revenue targets and spending plans. But Rochon says his government must continue to steer a clear course with its new science policy if it is to become an effective strategic planning tool.
"In this field, it's not only an expense but it's an investment and we still need to keep in the game and control the slowdown," he asserts. "The government must keep its rhythm of investment in research and innovation at a steady level."