Robert Slater stepping down after long S&T policy career
March 31, 2003
The federal S&T community is losing one of its most effective champions with the retirement today of Dr Robert Slater. A mainstay of science policy at Environment Canada since its inception in the early 1970s, and an eloquent spokesperson for federal S&T across government, Slater has had a hand in many of the key files in recent history. From acid rain to science capacity, his input has significantly increased the profile of environmental and S&T issues.
More recently, he has helped to raise awareness of the importance of public good S&T and create new mechanisms that would allow federal scientists and laboratories to enhance their contribution to the national system of innovation. Under the Liberal administration, federal S&T has been struggling to find the right role and vehicles for transforming how it contributes to innovation.
Slater was one of the key architects of the proposed Federal Innovation Networks of Excellence (FINE) program, which remains the best chance for a renewal of federal S&T. He says the next few months will be critical to the success of FINE, as the pending change in political leadership provides a unique window of opportunity.
“This is a transition period , a period of great opportunity,” he says. “The government has dedicated a lot of time to the domain of universities and infrastructure outside of government. These are strategically significant decisions and it’s time to pay the same sort of attention to government science in the service of Canadians. FINE is one way in which this greater attention might manifest itself.”
ROLE SHOULD BE CLEAR
For Slater, proponents of federal S&T must not couch their arguments for enhanced role as a plea for treatment equal to that of the academic community or even the private sector. Instead, its re-orientation must be viewed as “necessary for a national system of innovation”. This message must also be supported by those in the private and academic sectors.
“The private sector should be engaged to a point where they say this is the sort of science we want to see in government and universities should be saying the same thing,” he says. “As a country we need to fire on three cylinders and now it’s time to connect the third cylinder in the national interest and connect them all to the same drive shaft.”
Slater says the challenge in the coming months is to accurately describe the federal role in innovation. That includes engaging the other players with scientific mandates to provide a coherent description of how the S&T world operates.
“You need to get that talent and facilities regardless of where they’re located to offer the best advice to government that’s possible,” he says. “The scientific process has a significant creative part to it, and you need to encourage and reward it.”
Now that a consensus is emerging on the kind of federal S&T that is required for the government to fulfill its role in a national system of innovation, attention is being turned to what its future focus will be. Slater points to the ongoing technology foresight activity as a critical tool in addressing the increasingly complex interdependency of government, industry and academia.
“It’s a matter of putting the two pieces together. A lot of services the government provides to the public are under the heading of related scientific activities, from weather forecasting to regulatory measures for health, security and the environment. The public looks to government for these but there’s a sense that they haven’t received the attention they warrant,” he says. “This needs to occupy a significant place on the agendas of the central agencies and all of that should be reflected in the budgeting process.”
CAREER LINKED TO KEY ENVIRONMENTAL FILES
Slater’s formidable expertise in manipulating the machinery of federal bureaucracy has been developed through a series of key files and positions at Environment Canada. He joined the department at its inception in 1971 after a brief career running an environmental consulting firm. After working on issues related to the Great Lakes, he plunged into acid rain, an issue he worked on for 17 years.
“That was my big card play. I was associated with the file from 1974 when acid rain started off as a scientific curiosity to 1991 when my final involvement was as the chief negotiator of the Canada-US air quality accord. I’ve had a unique career and unusual experiences.”
Although Slater remains clearly energized by the potential of federal S&T, he is resigned to the fact that he will no longer be actively involved, at least from the inside. After a planned six month hiatus, he plans to seek out new opportunities, possibly within academia.
“The public side of this business is that you produce things like the Kyoto agreement, but that took 10 years to produce,” he says. “What you see is the tip of the iceberg but I’ve had experience on the whole iceberg. I’d like to explain how the whole iceberg works and academe is something I really enjoy.”