Canada’s science policy takes centre stage in Toronto

“If you want your government officials interested in science and technology, send them to China.”

“Individuals are inherently innovative. Institutions are not.”

“Think-tanks are good – but we also need do-tanks.”

“Scientists have no idea to what extent communication utterly dominates politics… when meeting with a government decision-maker, you have at most 90 seconds in which to make your case.”

“Are Tim Hortons and hockey our comparative global advantage?”

“Our distinctive new global brand would be innovation – Canada helping developing countries solve their problems using science… from blue helmets to white lab coats.”

“Enough about the scientifically-illiterate public… what about all the public-illiterate scientists?”

These are just a sampling of the memorable one-liners to emerge from discussions at the inaugural Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC), held on Oct 28-30 in Toronto. The CSPC’s slogan was “better policies, better science.”

The 2.5-day conference was a forum for members of the Canadian scientific community – from the academic, industry, government and non-profit sectors – to engage in a national conversation about the most important science policy issues facing our country and to forge lasting linkages between stakeholders and policymakers.

“Science policy” encompasses two related and complementary spheres:

  1. “Policy for science” – strategies for managing and enhancing scientific research and innovation
  2. “Science for policy” – how scientific knowledge informs government decision-making

The CSPC tackled a range of topics from both spheres, including: Canada’s national science & technology strategies, private-sector R&D, innovation commercialization, the knowledge-based economy, environmental & energy policy, governance of emerging technologies, science education, science journalism & communication and science diplomacy.

In addition to 13 sessions with over 50 leading speakers from across the country, the conference featured keynote addresses by some distinguished guests:

  • Opening remarks were delivered by the Hon. John Milloy, Ontario Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities and Minister of Research and Innovation. He stressed his government’s continuing commitment to science and innovation as a driver of economic growth, the need for federal-provincial cooperation and noted that Ontario is the only Canadian province to have a stand-alone Ministry of Research and Innovation.
  • The first keynote address was delivered by Dr. Bruce Alberts, Editor-in-Chief of Science Magazine and former President of the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S. (an organization that provides independent scientific advice to the U.S. government). He stressed the economic rise of China, the prominent role being played by scientists and engineers at the highest levels of the Chinese government and argued the need for more trained scientists to enter other sectors in society – especially government and the media.
  • Another keynote address was delivered by the Hon. Gary Goodyear, Canada’s Minister of State, Science and Technology. Despite a historically strained relationship with the academic research community, Minister Goodyear seemed sincerely interested in the outcomes of the conference and encouraged the audience to contact him with their ideas.
  • The surprise “hit” of the conference was the keynote address by Preston Manning, President and CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy (and an outspoken advocate for effective science policy in his post-political career). Unlike much of the debate about science policy – which is high on buzzwords like “innovation” and the “knowledge economy” but low on specifics – Manning’s talk was a fresh perspective loaded with concrete proposals for action:
    1. Establish a fellowship program to send young scientists on work-terms with political staff in Ottawa, with the eventual goal of having more scientifically trained people in the halls of power
    2. Establish a process by which the scientific community can identify those within their ranks who could be nominated to run for public office
    3. Establish an Office of Science and Technology attached to parliament
    4. Create science-policy think-tanks to address the chronic problem of low private-sector R&D in Canada
    5. DO something: Choose a single policy recommendation from the conference and pursue it with government – see it through to the bitter end, whether it’s ultimately adopted or not.

    Manning’s address was well received enough to garner a standing ovation, and influential enough to be repeatedly cited by speakers in later sessions.

Now that the dust has settled, was CSPC 2009 a success? As one of its organizers, I may be biased – but I think the answer is a resounding “yes”. The final number of delegates – which came in at over 400 – greatly exceeded our expectations and the atmosphere of enthusiasm was palpable. All the feedback that we’ve received thus far has been overwhelmingly positive – so much so that planning of the next CSPC has already begun.

At the same time, the end of CSPC 2009 is only the beginning of a larger journey towards harnessing the energy within our community to revitalize Canada’s science policy landscape – a key goal will be to carry forward the momentum generated by the conference in the days to come. Encouragingly, the conference has ignited a serious conversation about the creation of a permanent institute/think-tank/network for Canadian science policy. Stay tuned!

In the coming days, the entire content of the CSPC will be made publicly available for the benefit of all Canadians at the conference website (