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

Going global?

While the outlook is not entirely bleak, Canada – unlike Quebec – has not really stepped up to the plate. The government is underperforming on its commitments to science, and risks engendering a “say-do” gap. The findings of last spring’s Fundamental Science Review (Naylor Report) highlighted the need to pursue opportunities for enhanced international scientific collaboration, but the government has been slow to respond.  R&D spending lags seriously behind our competitors. The Mandate Letters presented to Foreign Minister Freeland,  Development Minister Bibeau, and Science Minister Duncan lack any specific reference to science diplomacy or objectives in international S&T more generally. There is no strategy or plan to attract and fast-track diaspora scientists and scientific refugees, an untapped resource which, if carefully exploited, could rapidly augment Canada’s depleted capacity.

Global Affairs Canada (GAC) has for many years toyed with the idea of appointing a departmental science advisor, but that has not happened, despite the rising trend to this end elsewhere. While a Science and Technology division does exist at GAC, it serves the trade and commercial side of the department, and is preoccupied largely with efforts to sell products and services abroad.  Policy planning papers have been written on science diplomacy, but they are gathering dust, and the concept – let alone the practice –  remains largely alien.

Canada signed the UN Arms Trade Treaty, but – as underscored painfully by the controversial decision to proceed with a large sale of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia – export controls have not been tightened. Perhaps most discouragingly, Canada refused to join 122 other countries in support the landmark  UN treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

With a general election only two years away, the case for the government to move, quickly and deliberately, on issues of international science cooperation seems unassailable. How else will this country be able to demonstrate its commitments in this regard, or to the attainment of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, all of which feature a significant S&T component? There are, moreover, a range of accessible, low hanging fruits which are well within reach and easily harvested.


Wrapping up

At this year’s recently concluded CSPC, and on the occasion of the visit of a high level delegation from IIASA,   I organized a panel on the subject of this paper. The following list of observations and recommendations, compiled by the conference organizers but not yet published, is based upon those presentations and the discussions which ensued. It represents a useful action agenda and summary of the current state of play:

  • Canada’s capacity to undertake science diplomacy and international research collaboration suffered greatly during the Harper years, and is now weak compared to most other advanced nations.
  • The federal government’s strong expressions of support for evidence-based policy-making, science and research have not yet been matched with financial reinvestment or substantive action.
  • Canada needs some quick wins in order to reconnect with its past history of international scientific cooperation, especially as it prepares to: hold the G7 Presidency and host the annual Summit in spring 2018; mount a campaign for election to the UN Security Council in 2020, and; support progress towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
  • To attain these objectives, Canada should rebuild its global partnerships and re-establish international research and innovation linkages, for example by be-joining the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), an organization in which Canada was a founding member.
  • IIASA been effective in addressing current Canadian priorities, including many transnational issues such as climate change; food and water security; population/migration; management of the global commons; and sustainable energy policy.
  • Global Affairs Canada’s science diplomacy and science policy capacity needs to be strengthened and the department should be tasked with developing an international science strategy.
  • Bridge building between nations is particularly relevant in the face of challenges such as power shift, asymmetrical globalization, rising populist sentiment, Brexit, the widening economic and digital divides and machinations of an unpredictable, isolationist U.S. administration.
  • The soft power of science diplomacy can bring researchers together between countries that are otherwise unreconciled, or even hostile towards one another, particularly during crises, or when regular channels of political communication are strained or blocked.
  • If properly planned, resourced and equipped, Canada could advance its interests, promote its values, contribute to development, peace and security, and play an important role in bringing greater ambition, diversity and geopolitical balance to the internationalization of science.

Any accelerated internationalization of Canadian science is bound to be a complex undertaking. The process will be complicated and difficult, as there are many moving parts and more than a few of them are rusty, ill-fitting or non-existent.

Of at least one thing, however, readers may be sure. It will take considerably more than bureaucratic tinkering, or a reliance upon Justin Trudeau’s adoring media and glittering personal brand, to get Canada meaningfully back into the game.