The internationalization of Canadian science – Part I: Getting back in the game?

Blogger’s note. My apologies, again, to regular followers of this series. This fall I have been preoccupied with a combination of conferences, travel, consulting, and other writing projects. As a result, I have fallen behind with my postings. I will do my best to remedy that situation, starting with this entry.   


Paul Heinbecker’s compelling 2010 book, from which I have borrowed the second part of my title, offers many useful insights into how Canada’s once storied place in the world might most expeditiously be restored. It does not, however, dwell upon the role of science in diplomatic practice or as a constituent element of foreign policy kit. This is not surprising. Those issues have never registered appreciably on the domestic public or political radar screen. That said, the need for, and possibilities associated with combining science and diplomacy carry critical implications for security, prosperity and development. Indeed, this connection has never been more relevant.

Or timely.


Because at this crucial juncture, were the earth to be equipped with a collision warning system, the alarm would almost certainly be clanging incessantly.

A plurality of expert opinion is now convinced that the health of the planet is deteriorating and that, as a direct result, humanity’s long-term survival is in jeopardy. Although some aspects of that argument have been contested, it seems to me clear that we are collectively hurtling towards a tipping point – indefinable, but nonetheless not too distant – beyond which remediation and recovery will be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

If we are to avert that disastrous outcome, there are no military solutions. It will be science that provides the requisite knowledge, and technology the necessary tools. By better combining the objective, evidence-based, problem-solving methodology of science with the political agency and extensive networks of diplomacy, it just may be possible to avoid reaping the whirlwind associated with our incompetent, even rapacious global stewardship.

But there is much to be done, and the clock is ticking…

Understanding the challenge

In a post-truth age of “alternative facts” and “fake news”, emotion, conviction and ideology have in popular culture in large part triumphed over reason, empirical proof and pragmatism. Against this backdrop of uncertainty and rising populist and nationalist sentiments, science can shine brightly as a beacon, a positive and powerful driver of progress with the potential to address a daunting range of complex, cross-cutting challenges. Unlike terrorism, political extremism or religious violence, however – and this is germane – the new threat set  already afflict us all.

For these reasons and more, and notwithstanding unfortunate developments such as Brexit and the Trump ascendency, many countries have put into place international science policies and programs which respond to the transformed landscape. Those sorts of initiatives include, but extend well beyond more conventional S&T-based international pursuits related to arms control/disarmament and environmental protection.

Canadian performance has lately been mixed, and over the past decade considerable capacity has been lost. Between 2006-2015, budgets and programs were cut severely, thousands of federal scientists (and those working elsewhere who depended upon government funding) lost their jobs, scientists were muzzled and support for basic science took a huge hit. Rebuilding is today a precondition if new opportunities are to be seized and Canada’s place secured in the widening world of international scientific cooperation.

In the face of continuing globalization (the defining historical process of our times) and the emergence of heteropolarity (the nascent world order model) Canada has many comparative advantages, and retains substantial potential. This reserve resides mainly in various levels of government, the private sector, academia, research institutes, and specialized NGOs. Key players could, and indeed should be doing more to expand their engagement in collaborative efforts to address the vexing range of “wicked“, S&T-driven issues, ranging from climate change and pandemic disease to food and water insecurity, migration, urbanization and declining biodiversity. Special opportunities exist for Canada to demonstrate leadership the emerging field of science diplomacy, but re-investment and new partnerships will be essential. Even as seemingly natural a proposition as taking the lead on the negotiation of an international convention on the conservation and management of freshwater resources would be difficult in the present circumstances.