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Why Canada is bush-league at innovation

March 24, 2010

This is what it looks like when a country is serious about innovation.

UBC Nobel Prize winner Carl Wieman has been recruited to advise US President Barack Obama on science policy and science education. Prof. Wieman, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001 for work on Bose-Einstein condensates, has been nominated for the post of associate director of science in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). If confirmed by the Senate, he will advise the president on matters of science policy and science education.

The OSTP was created in 1976 to “advise the President and others within the Executive Office of the President on the effects of science and technology on domestic and international affairs”:

The mission of the Office of Science and Technology Policy is threefold; first, to provide the President and his senior staff with accurate, relevant, and timely scientific and technical advice on all matters of consequence; second, to ensure that the policies of the Executive Branch are informed by sound science; and third, to ensure that the scientific and technical work of the Executive Branch is properly coordinated so as to provide the greatest benefit to society.

The OSTP has a large, permanent staff to perform policy analysis and provide advice and guidance on science-related issues. It is led by a director and four associate directors, all of whom are respected scientists. The director acts as the president’s “science advisor”, a role that dates back to the 1930s and the Roosevelt administration and Vannevar Bush.

And here? We finally appointed a science advisor to the Prime Minister in 2004. And then eliminated the position in 2008, four years later.

Instead, we have a Science, Technology and Innovation Council, and have had going all the way back to 2007. It meets irregularly and has issued one report. One. In two years.

The US has a similar council, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). It exists in addition to the OSTP. Perhaps because these councils can’t provide the detailed, ongoing policy analysis needed to inform everyday government decisions. Nonetheless, PCAST meets publicly several times a year to discuss science policy issues. PCAST posts all information from its meetings, including the presentations given by committee members. How often does STIC meet? I don’t know, but their website looks half-abandoned. There’s no indication of when they meet or what they discuss.

So then, who is in charge of advising the government for science policy? Gary Goodyear. A junior minister without a science background. A Minister of State who reports to the Minister of Industry, not the Prime Minister. A minister whose portfolio is one of two junior ministries in Industry, the other being Small Business and Tourism.

Science and Technology = Small Business and Tourism.

Maybe, just maybe, this is the reason we’re not doing so well on the whole innovation-thing.

And maybe, just maybe, instead of worrying about money for short-term projects and infrastructure, Canadians should be taking a long hard look at how little we actually care about encouraging innovation. Instead of clamouring for a few more dollars being distributed haphazardly, we should be asking for something akin to a unified strategy – no, even just some actual leadership… Because if you want to build an economy for the future, an economy based on innovative, R&D-based industries, you don’t leave the whole shebang to a chiropractor in a junior ministry. You make it a priority.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. March 24, 2010 08:05


    Makes one wonder whether this government (or any government considering we haven’t ever had such an office) cares about innovation, S&T, and all that other stuff, or if we really are hewers of wood and drawers of water in their view.

  2. March 24, 2010 08:26

    It’s also disheartening that our Minister of State for Sci & Tech is on the fence about evolution:

  3. David Bruggeman permalink
    March 24, 2010 14:12

    To be fair, and not to disagree with your main points (that Canada has no institutional infrastructure or political consistency to support science, technology or innovation policy), the U.S. can do a lot better with innovation. Other parts of the world are passing the U.S. by in certain kinds of innovation. High speed rail is one such example.

    Arguably the T in both OSTP and PCAST is really a lower-case t where those entities are concerned. Innovation policy is typically handled by the U.S. Commerce Department, and is often more active at the state level for reasons of Federalism and history. And the tendency in the U.S. the federal level is more to get out of the way of industry than to encourage/support it. We recognize the challenges, but there are some non-technical blocks to work through before the U.S. really gets serious about innovation.

  4. March 24, 2010 14:23

    Hi Rob! Thanks for the history of the OSTP and Canada’s science advisor. Yeah, I was a little disheartened when I saw the news about Wieman. We have both excellent home-grown and recruited scientific talent in Canada which never seems to get tapped. Sadly, I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s not just a problem with the government or the public not being interested. Generally, scientists in Canada seem quite apathetic about doing anything to get science into the national discussion.

  5. March 25, 2010 18:40


    Have to say, I love this blog. We have a crisis in Canada and we need to get our political servants (they are representing us, at least in theory) to listen and act.

    I just posted the following piece on my blog about the innovation problems in Canada.

    It’s the 3rd of 3 parts, but would love to get your feedback and comments.


  6. crf permalink
    March 26, 2010 13:41

    I have a request …
    There was a rumour that a new NRC president had be nominated, and that this was reported in the globe and mail yesterday (thursday 25 March). Later the story was retracted, because I heard that whoever it was declined the job.

    If this is the case, could a reader please post the story?

    • Rob Annan permalink*
      April 7, 2010 08:08

      Hi crf,

      I’m afraid I can’t find any links to the story, but my understanding is that the government announced Iain Stewart as President of the NRC a couple of weeks ago, but retracted the statement pretty fast. Stewart was subsequently named to the NRC Council. I’m not sure why there was this confusion, apart from usual NRC confusion.

  7. Nilima permalink
    March 30, 2010 10:41

    Great post, Rob.

    My second reaction (after the initial feel-good, it’s-their-fault, reaction), is to wonder: what are concrete measures that we, as academics, can take to build the kind of leadership which is needed? If we don’t step up and make our voices heard, or endow some group with broad epistemic authority to advocate on behalf of science, someone else will speak for us. We won’t like what’s happening, but as you point out, we’re doing little to change this. Who knows- Goodyear probably tries his best, but he needs to get input. Constructive, impartial, knowledgeable and timely input.

    I predict this will be a hard, fraught process. However, it will be worth it. Well-built academic structures are of much more enduring than political or corporate ones. So – what is the next step?

    • Rob Annan permalink*
      April 7, 2010 08:04

      Hi Nilima, thanks for the comment. I don’t know what the next step is. I think about it a lot. I think scientists need to find a way to join their voices in a constructive way. I’ve been thinking about the value in setting up a POST-like office in Ottawa, independently of government. Just sort of invite ourselves to the table. It would be non-partisan, non-confrontational, and constructive. I’ll discuss the idea in a blog post in the future – hopefully, we can start to engage many of our colleagues in a discussion.

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