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

The way we were

Canada was once a pioneer in environmental advocacy, development assistance and creative diplomacy. Running through these enterprises there exists a strain of activity which is usually referred to as international scientific cooperation – the term science diplomacy has only come into widespread parlance over the past few years. In any case, when viewed through the lens of S&T, a summary review of the past fifty or so years illustrates convincingly that the combination of science and diplomacy has often paid handsome dividends.

Pierre Trudeau energetically supported, and then co-chaired the Cancun Summit on North-South Relations. His government was deeply involved in the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) negotiations, which eventually produced the treaty signed by Canada in 1982. Trudeau’s still-born “Strategy of Suffocation”, aimed at slowing the arms race, and his much-maligned, late Cold War “Peace Crusade”, had they borne fruit, would have both relied heavily upon scientific verification.

Under Brian Mulroney, Canada significantly upped its game – and in so doing burnished its image and reputation – by rolling out a string of environmental accomplishments. The government concluded the Acid Rain Treaty with the USA; hosted the meeting which produced the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, and;  led in the organization and delivery of  the landmark “Rio Earth Summit” (UNCED). That convocation produced an unprecedented range of achievements, including: the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development; the Framework Convention on Climate Change; the Convention on Biological Diversity; the UN Convention to Combat Desertification; the Statement of Forest Principles, the Commission on Sustainable Development, and Agenda 21.

Under Jean Chretien, the pace and intensity of Canadian science diplomacy ebbed, and support for international science was reduced as a result of the cost- and deficit-cutting measures associated with the Program Review. Still, his government marshalled a great deal of scientific evidence to win the battle for public opinion and defeat Spain in the so-called “Fish War”; strongly supported the essential and invaluable, but in large part unheralded Global Partnerships Program, and; hosted the first Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (COP 23), which was soon after ratified by Parliament.

Paul Martin’s brief tenure as Prime Minister was not particularly noteworthy from the perspective of this analysis. Still, but he establish the Council of Canadian Academies, and appointed a National Science Advisor whose writ – until the position was eliminated by the Conservative government in 2008 – extended to issues of foreign policy.

Whatever might be said about the performance of any of these leaders, when compared against the carnage inflicted by the Harper government’s “War on Science”, their cumulative record veritably shines. For almost half a century science occupied a privileged position within the firmament of Canadian foreign policy. If the Government of Canada is to succeed in re-establishing that aspect of its liberal internationalist credentials, then some new directions will have to be explored.

Going global?

It is often suggested that science would benefit by becoming more interdisciplinary.  Clearly, science is an increasingly international endeavour, and the sources of global R&D and innovation are diffusing in tandem with development progress and shifting power. Although traditionally high-performing countries such as the US, UK, some European states and Japan still dominate, new players, including China, India, Brazil and Korea, are scrambling quickly up the ladder. This is not just about the emergence of new sources of knowledge generation, technology and innovation, or even the fact that some private philanthropic foundations are now spending more on certain types of scientific research many of the world’s governments. All of this carries important commercial, economic, and ultimately political ramifications.

And how is Canada doing?  This country has on the books a clutch of bilateral S&T agreements, and while some have yielded tangible benefits, most arose from the need to produce an easy “deliverable” for photo-op purposes on the occasion of a ministerial visit. Accordingly, many of these pacts now languish and are moribund.  Nevertheless, in the wake of the “decade of darkness” 2006-15, there have recently been some encouraging signs.  Despite the contrary messaging on pipelines and tar sands development, and our faltering innovation performance, Canada has returned to the fold on climate change, and has embarked on a joint venture with the UK to advocate the international elimination of coal as an energy source. Canada is no longer likely to be awarded the Fossil of the Year Award for obstructing progress. Although the staff and budget are small and the position is now housed in a line department rather than the political centre, at long last the position of Chief Science Advisor has been filled. A domestically-focused science and research funding committee has been established, and there is talk of creating a new inter-agency body to coordinate the government’s international scientific programs and activities.

And yet, and yet…