A Global Northern Minerva? Enabling the Strategic Use of Canada`s International S&T

bridges vol. 28, December 2010 / OpEds & Commentaries

By Paul Dufour

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Paul Dufour

Almost four decades ago, in its landmark 1973 study on Canada, science, and international affairs, the Science Council of Canada made the following rather prescient forecast:

"The role of science and technology will continue to expand. It is probable that, not more than twenty years from now, the locus of decision making in many sectors will have to shift from the national to the international level. Sacrifices of national sovereignty may become necessary. Thus, the need to develop a capability for properly assessing costs and benefits, in both the political and the scientific spheres, will be increasingly felt."

The report went on to outline key objectives in defining Canada`s approach to international S&T, including developing an information base to help set priorities, and creating learning opportunities for both scientists and diplomats operating in the international arena. Over the years, despite repeated efforts by Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) and government departments and agencies to frame their own respective international approaches to using science and technology for domestic needs and foreign and trade policy, little strategic attention has been paid to Canada's unique global knowledge assets.  With the international landscape rapidly changing, Canada must pay closer attention if it is to take advantage of emerging opportunities in science and innovation.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} In June 2009, President Obama announced a new science-envoys program to enhance US links with the Muslim world. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the first three envoys in November 2009, and other prominent US scientists are to be invited to join the US Science Envoy program, expanding the scope of the program to countries and regions around the globe. The US and Indonesia have just signed a US$137 million science, environment, and technology accord as part of the new process.

In June 2010, the Royal Society of London and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the UK organized a three-day event at Wilton Park on science diplomacy. Bringing together experts from the UK with international scientific and foreign policy communities, the meeting examined the role of science as a source of "smart engagement" in foreign policy.

Of course, these excursions into the world of knowledge and statecraft are not new. The intersection of knowledge with diplomacy is growing. There is a global trend in public policy efforts that can now be viewed as "intermestic" - simultaneously domestic and international - and nothing is more global than science. An invisible college of 7 million researchers who now populate every corner of the planet operates via networks that are linked through a commonly held set of universal norms. Thus, new discoveries and ideas can spring from literally anywhere.

Canada is an active part of this community and has been for some time. By force of its geography, as well as its G8, G20, and bilingual status, it belongs to virtually every science club on the planet. Indeed, the recent announcements at the Perimeter Institute of a 20 million Canadian dollars fund to foster new African institutes in mathematical sciences, and the five-year, 225 million Canadian dollars Grand Challenges Canada program in global health bear this out.  NSERC`s participation in the G8 Research Council's multilateral initiative in global science; Canadian science's tremendous success in the International Polar Year; and the International S&T Partnerships Program to enhance linkages with Brazil, India, China, and Israel are other examples.  

But all of this activity continues to be somewhat piecemeal. There is little public consultation over a strategy, nor is there a rationale for investing in global knowledge.  Why it is important? Where we should focus? Who should do it? In short, while new roads lie ahead, there is no roadmap. The June report of the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs on the rise of the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) made a strong argument for Canada to pay more attention to its knowledge and human-capital investments if it wants to improve its global brand.

The 2010 Open Canada statement of the Canadian International Council acknowledged that Canada has a stop-go approach to foreign engagement.  As that report argues:
"Knowledge is a tradable good. In an age in which brainpower has overtaken horsepower, Canada needs to hitch its future at home and in the world firmly to knowledge.  Let's make Canada the centre of as many knowledge networks as possible."

Not a bad objective, on paper.  But what actions will it take to become more strategic about our knowledge excellence overall, and to help position Canada to reap the benefits of new and emerging global opportunities?   

Along with designing a new international S&T roadmap tailored to Canadian interests, here are some modest suggestions:

a)    Increase the in-depth analysis and understanding of international regions and specific countries, which will become a greater necessity for successful S&T linkages ... This will, in turn, require a stronger linkage between traditional forms of intelligence gathering through missions around the world via science counsellors and trade officers, as well as enhanced communications with the Canadian research and student communities at large as they engage around the world.

b)    Examine more closely the rationale for participation in various global science clubs, including a reassessment of why Canada no longer belongs to certain international organizations. Times have changed and so has the global research agenda. One good example is the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA): Canada was a founding member but for several reasons pulled out in the 1990s. Is it time to re-examine this and other areas where research priorities have changed, and determine where Canada can get more leverage in these clubs?

c)    Use more innovation on the part of government in restructuring and better integrating its many instruments of science advice, development research, foreign relations, and domestic policy. Close benchmarking of R&D and technology partnership experiments in other jurisdictions will be useful in this matter, including assessment of successes and failures. Both Japan and the UK, for example, have adopted science diplomacy strategies that explicitly link their respective development, trade, and foreign policy objectives. Canada needs to think more strategically about using its talent and knowledge - including the diaspora - on the global stage. An international S&T outreach strategy is also needed to bring together the disparate approaches of Canadian science agencies and departments. The Council of Canadian Academies could play a helpful role in shaping the background analyses for such an integrated approach.
d)    Ask what the government can do to expose its diplomatic apparatus to more science literacy. Programs might be developed akin to the Jefferson science fellows in the US State Department where tenure-track academics are loaned for a short period to help work on global issues, or some other type of skilled personnel exchange. And why not have diplomats spend some time in science labs that have strong global connections?

e)    Consider naming a chief scientist or science ambassador within DFAIT, much like the US and UK now have in place. The person in such a position - well resourced with a clear mandate - could undertake several tasks and liaise with the Canadian knowledge communities as well as the international community, thus raising Canada's profile abroad.

f)    Brand Canada's science and social sciences excellence by providing opportunities for its young talents and outreach organizations at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver and at the International Polar Year wrap-up conference ("From Knowledge to Action") in Montreal - both in 2012.  

As long as international S&T issues remain somewhat peripheral to decision making within the national innovation approach (not to mention that affecting foreign, aid, and trade policies), one can expect that Canada's global innovation image will not reach its full potential. For this situation to change, novel experiments with the requisite leadership will need to take place within Canada's major sectors of innovation and research performance.

Perhaps there can be a rebranding of Canada as a veritable Northern Minerva!


About the author: Paul Dufour is head of the science-policy consultancy Paulicyworks based in Gatineau, Quebec. He can be reached at:  paulicyworks[at]gmail.com