Science Policy | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Science Policy

Science Policy

Science policy is a term which came into use in the 1960s to denote the co-ordinated measures that should be taken by governments to promote the development of scientific and technological research and, especially, to guide the exploitation of research results to further national economic growth and welfare. State patronage of SCIENCE and TECHNOLOGY was not new; indeed it has a long history. What was new was the growing sense, among the public and political leaders, of the central importance of science and technology in the modern world and of the need for more systematic action by governments to direct and control their use. A 1963 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report stated: "To say that a government needs an articulated science policy is simply to note that there has devolved upon that government a major and continuing responsibility to make choices about issues that involve science." Science had become a "national asset" (see INVENTORS AND INNOVATION).

The need for national science policy was widely promoted in the 1960s and early 1970s by international agencies (eg, OECD) and by a multiplicity of official and unofficial bodies in many countries; however, there were serious disagreements about the precise form science policy should take and the appropriate governmental institutions for making it. The most important institutional developments in Canada were the creation of a Science Secretariat (1964) in the PRIVY COUNCIL OFFICE, establishment of the SCIENCE COUNCIL OF CANADA (1966), and creation of the Ministry of State for Science and Technology (1971). The most important documents to emerge in the debate were reports by the Science Council, especially its 4th report, Towards a National Science Policy in Canada (October 1968), the Review of Science Policy, Canada by OECD (1969), and the 3 comprehensive reports from the Senate Special Committee on Science Policy (the Lamontagne Committee), which was set up in 1967 and sat for more than 5 years.

Science policy can be said to have 2 complementary aspects: policy for promoting science, ie, the provision by governments of an environment that fosters growth of scientific and technological knowledge; and policy for using science, ie, the exploitation of this knowledge in development and innovation. The former might be taken to mean a collection of policies that are pursued, more or less independently, by government agencies to sponsor research relating solely to their specific functional responsibilities. In this sense, most "advanced" nations (and certainly Canada) could be said to have had a policy for promoting science for more than a century. However, more than this minimal definition is intended: namely, a comprehensive and coherent policy for government support of science and technology generally. This point was made by the Glassco Commission (see GOVERNMENT ORGANIZATION, ROYAL COMMISSION ON ) in a report published in 1962. The commission was strongly critical of what it regarded as the unco-ordinated and policyless expansion of science and technology in Canada after WWII, and this criticism led directly to the establishment of the Science Secretariat. Moreover, in an era in which advances in scientific knowledge were creating many more opportunities for exploitation than could be satisfied with the resources that were available, there was need for establishment of priorities.

In a "small-science" country like Canada, especially, there were severe limits on what kinds of science and technology could be supported. Thus, it was argued that a policy for promoting science must be based on carefully specified "criteria for scientific choice"; ie, on principles for deciding how much support in the form of public money and other resources (eg, trained personnel) should go to the nation's science and technology as a whole; how this "pool" should then be distributed sector by sector (ie, among university research, "in-house" research done by government agencies, and research done by industry); and, lastly, how each of these sectoral allocations should be distributed among the various scientific and technological disciplines. The implementation of these criteria would have an indirect effect on the rate of growth and the direction taken by the various sciences and technologies, and a direct effect on the balance between basic science, applied science and development through technological innovation. The Science Council, OECD and the Lamontagne Committee all argued strongly that the promotion of Canadian science had been too heavily weighted towards basic research and that both basic and applied research were too far removed from the point where development could take place (namely INDUSTRY). Much has been done since the 1970s to correct this imbalance, although problems persist, since so much Canadian industry is "branch-plant industry," for which the research and development is done in the laboratories of parent companies in the US.

A government could pursue a coherent policy for promoting basic and applied science using criteria that make little or no reference to the relevance of the research to specific social needs or national priorities. Such a policy could support those areas of research that seem to promise the most important results from a scientific point of view, and those scientists who were demonstrably the most competent and productive. Indeed, this policy was pursued for many years by the NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL, the objective of which was to build a viable "science base" in Canada and to create a body of competent scientists who could take their place in the international science community. If, however, science policy is also to relate directly to the use of science, criteria of social "relevance" must necessarily be invoked. There are then 3 possibilities. In deciding how government support is to be allocated, public agencies responsible for supporting projects may simply be given a directive to ensure that priority is given to those projects that can demonstrate a direct relevance to specific social needs or to the solution of important social problems. Canadian science policy eventually took this route. The second possibility, explored by the Science Council in its 4th report, requires that at least a major portion of the nation's scientific and technological effort should be pursued through very large "mission-oriented" projects involving government science agencies, universities and industry. The prototype scientific "mission" was the Manhattan Project in WWII, which produced the first atomic bombs. Postwar examples are the Canadian NUCLEAR ENERGY program that developed the CANDU reactor, and the American and Soviet space programs. The Science Council recommended "that most new undertakings in Canadian science be organized as large, multidisciplinary, mission-oriented projects having as a goal the solution of some important economic or social problem in which all the sectors of the scientific community ... must participate on an equal footing." These "major programs" would each contain components of basic and applied research, development and innovation. The council foresaw future basic research as being done principally in fields allied to these programs, but stressed that it should also be supported as a possible source of new theoretical discoveries and as a means of providing the necessary body of expertise for understanding and absorbing advances made in other countries (notably the US). The council suggested several broad areas in which "missions" would be appropriate, including upper atmosphere and SPACE, WATER resources, TRANSPORTATION, the URBAN environment, and development of the Canadian NORTH and of new ENERGY sources. These proposals were not entirely without effect on the subsequent progress of government support for science and technology in Canada, but the basic idea of a series of major multidisciplinary missions has never been implemented.

The third possibility for structuring policy for the use of science was hinted at, perhaps unwittingly, in the 1963 OECD report which suggested that science policy should lead to "national decisions about where and how fast science will go, and about the national goals to which it will contribute." Implicit in this statement is the idea of the comprehensive planning of science, according to state-prescribed objectives, such as was supposed to occur in the USSR. The pursuit of science policy within a framework of national goals was given some attention by the Science Council in its 4th report, but there was little apparent relationship between the very general goals it suggested (national prosperity, personal freedom, etc) and the programs it actually prescribed. The notion that science can be comprehensively planned in a free society has now been abandoned by all countries that may have contemplated it, even by France with its long tradition of dirigisme and its (post-WWII) adoption of planification. In a totalitarian state like the former USSR the central planning of science was in principle possible (although in practice it was frequently attended by unfortunate consequences), but in highly pluralistic and decentralized democracies, such as Canada, the idea is now recognized as unattainable, except, perhaps, in the highly unlikely circumstance of a conventional world war in the future. This situation does not solely, or even primarily, arise from inadequacies in governmental machinery; rather, it results from the fact that it is impossible, in Western democracies, to establish by fiat broad societal objectives towards which scientific and technological progress must be directed.

In the course of the international debate about science policy, 3 major options emerged respecting the governmental machinery that might be adopted. The first was the creation of a minister for science, with executive responsibilities, who would head a department for running at least the major government scientific establishments, for funding and other support of the nation's scientific and technological research and development, and (through the minister) for advising on science policy (in the case of parliamentary, cabinet systems of government like Britain and Canada, directly to the Cabinet). The second option was the creation of a minister of scientific affairs or a minister for science policy (possibly heading a department or assisted by an appropriately sized ministerial staff), who would have no executive functions but would serve in an advisory capacity to other departments and agencies and to the Cabinet, and who might also be given certain co-ordinating functions (eg, chairmanship of a Cabinet science-policy committee). The third option was to establish a nonministerial advisory agency in the central core of government (ie, in the Cabinet office or, possibly, in the department responsible for authorizing all government spending). Such an agency would be responsible for advising on the science policy aspects of all government policies and programs, and might be headed by a chief scientific adviser to the government, with direct access to the chief executive (in a parliamentary cabinet system, to the prime minister).

The option of a minister for science was rejected for Canada, chiefly on the grounds that a minister with direct responsibilities for the performance of research in agencies of his own department would not be an impartial adviser on government science policy in general and that the concentration of so many science functions in one place would create an overcentralized and unwieldy administration. The idea was particularly disliked by scientists, who have traditionally been jealous of their autonomy, preferring to operate within a decentralized and pluralistic system. The advisory agency option was adopted, at least in part, by the creation of a Science Secretariat within the Privy Council Office in 1964, and the appointment in 1968 of its director as principal science adviser to the Cabinet. This promising move was abandoned in 1971 when the government shifted to the second option and set up the Ministry of State for Science and Technology. This option has proved to be weak, given the political realities of the Canadian Cabinet and bureaucratic system, and there has been a succession of short-lived incumbents of the office of minister of state, none of whom has been particularly effective. Between 1971 and 1986 the ministry had 13 incumbents and it was reorganized 5 times. In this system, a minister without executive responsibilities tends to have little influence in Cabinet, and this lack of influence means that the office is usually filled either by a prominent political figure for whom the office is simply a stepping-stone to more important posts, or by a lesser figure who is unlikely to advance much farther. On the other hand, if the post is filled by a minister who is given a second (executive) portfolio (as has happened on several occasions), the duties of this portfolio tend to take precedence, to the neglect of the science policy advisory functions.

A further effort to produce a national science and technology policy was initiated in 1986 when, at the request of the federal minister of state for science and technology, the Science Council convened a conference of representatives from industry, labour, the universities and governments. This was part of an ongoing process which included several federal-provincial meetings and a series of conferences between federal officials and provincial officials on a bilateral basis. These steps resulted in the creation of a Council of Science and Technology Ministers in December 1986 and the signing of a federal-provincial-territorial agreement on 12 March 1987, the purpose of which was, for the first time, to work towards a co-ordinated nationwide strategy to "promote entrepreneurial activity, recognize the critical importance of R & D to Canada's economic, social, cultural and regional development and address the impediments to research, development and innovations." In January 1988 PM Mulroney pledged an additional $1.3 billion over 5 years for science and technology. One-quarter went towards 2 new initiatives: "centres of excellence" and a national scholarship program.

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