Senior Fellow, ISSP, uOttawa
Executive Director, Science and Innovation, Institute on Governance (IOG)
On November 25, 2021, the ISSP organized a panel entitled Mission-Driven Research and Innovation to Address Grand Challenges: Does Canada have what it takes? at the Canadian Science Policy Conference. This blog is an adaptation of the author’s remarks.
When discussing mission-based research, it's important to understand the broader context that shapes our national science and innovation system.
In the closing months of the Second World War, Dr Vannevar Bush, Science Advisor to President Roosevelt, articulated an implicit social contract for science in his famous report Science: The Endless Frontier. Bush suggested that society should continue to fund science in peacetime in exchange for the benefits that flow to society in the form of new knowledge, new technologies and new innovations. Importantly, he argued for autonomy for the scientific community within that relationship, with scientists making decisions around what research should be funded and what should count as evidence. Bush famously said that science best advances through “the free play of free intellects working on subjects of their choice.” This social contract has informed the thinking of science and innovation systems around the world including Canada’s for 75 years.
But serendipity is not a strategy. The context has shifted, and there is a growing recognition that we need to rethink this contract. The metaphor of a contract itself may require a rethink as well, because it tends to perpetuate the notion that science and society are two opposing parties, rather than understanding that scientists are part of society.
Whether it's a new contract or a different framing metaphor, we need to consider how to create the greatest possible compatibility between the new knowledge that scientists create, and the public's capacity to assimilate it for society's long-term benefit. But we're at a turning point. As the President of the US National Academy of Sciences and President of Arizona State University have said: “The post-WWII model for organizing science remains powerful, but moving beyond its limits will be necessary for assuring the contributions of science to solving a wide array of societal challenges.”
Missions have a long history. We can think back to the British government's support of the Longitude Prize. We’ve had the Manhattan Project, the Apollo lunar landing program, the War on Cancer and the Human Genome Project. Current efforts include the X Prize and the HIBAR Research Alliance promoting “highly-integrative and responsive (HIBAR) research.” The European Commission has launched five missions in areas of food, cancer, oceans, smart cities and climate change adaptation, Japan has a moonshot program, the UK is creating an Advanced Research and Invention Agency, Germany has a federal agency for disruptive innovation, and the U.S. continues to add to its alphabet soup of DARPA-like agencies, most recently with ARPA-H targeting health. Even within this short list, we see tremendous variation in terms of the size of missions, the disciplines involved, the challenge focus, etc.
In Canada, we can point to other examples—the IDEaS Program, the Living Labs, and various programs at Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, including the superclusters. These examples are not all necessarily mission programs per se, but they all contribute to this overall conversation.
Too often, missions get a bad reputation of being very government-heavy, top-down approaches when in fact they require a broad cross-sectoral approach. The Apollo program, for example, engaged 400,000 people but less than 10 percent of those actually worked at NASA. Hundreds of businesses, small, medium and large, were mobilized through that program. It's important that mission-based approaches use a variety of policy instruments that foster bottom-up experimentation. And we're going to need new governance models.
At the Institute of Governance, we spend a lot of time thinking about these challenges. Taking a mission-based approach requires embracing a sense of urgency, particularly with grand challenges such as climate change, for which we need multiple missions and horizontal collaboration. Other success factors, as economist Mariana Mazzucato outlines in her books The Entrepreneurial State and Mission Economy, include strong leadership, a clear public purpose, ample funding, and a willingness to take risks and shape markets, not only address market failures.
It's important to acknowledge that the Apollo program was largely a technical mission within a Cold War context. The question then becomes how do we adapt missions to our current situation? Are we able to adapt mission principles to the societal grand challenges we're facing today, such as climate change, poverty and reconciliation? How do we tackle these more societally-entangled problems? How do we interweave Indigenous knowledge with Western science? There still isn’t a lot of literature out there in terms of how to implement a mission-based approach. Then there are the additional challenges of living in a post-truth/post-trust era with rising populism and hyper-partisanship, which makes it very difficult to build the type of consensus needed for multi-year missions.
Polling conducted at CSPC suggests that most respondents feel that missions don't necessarily impact negatively on basic research, but that is still a lingering concern. Let’s explore this. If we start with the traditional continuum between basic research and applied research (I know there are probably readers who would say that this is a completely false dichotomy, but bear with me), we often hear that a mission-directed approach is very much aligned with applied research, while basic research is very much non-directed. I don’t think that's quite right. I would suggest that those two concepts are actually orthogonal, which creates a four-quadrant space that we can explore and use to map major research and innovation funding programs.
The figure below is not exhaustive. It maps federal level programs, and we could definitely quibble over the exact placement of any of these bubbles. But I think there is general agreement that our existing programs span this space.
I’d like to focus on the bottom-right quadrant for a moment. What is meant by non-directed, applied research? This may seem like an oxymoron. I suggest that the Scientific Research and Experimental Development Tax Incentive Program (SR&ED or “shred”) is in that quadrant. Any firm conducting applied research that qualifies for SR&ED will be directing the research towards whatever problem it is trying to solve or whatever product innovation it is trying to develop. But from a government policy point of view, SR&ED has always been positioned as a broad framework program that provides indirect support. As long as the research is eligible for SR&ED, there's no top-down direction or mission focus. In that sense, SR&ED is in this quadrant of supporting non-directed, applied research.
What I would like to suggest then is at the top of the figure, there is an opportunity space (in red) for mission-directed basic and applied research and innovation. This would include use-inspired basic research (also known as Pasteur’s quadrant) as well as mission-driven, applied research. In the 2021 election, the government called for a Canadian Advanced Research Projects Agency modeled after the U.S. DARPA. There is some expectation that this organization will be set up and funded appropriately to provide mission-based funding in both Pasteur’s quadrant and the mission-driven applied research quadrant.
Now a key question, of course, is how do we fund this? There is a growing belief that Canada needs to “go big or go home.” We've seen business R&D intensity continue to decline for decades despite a generous SR&ED tax credit program. Perhaps it's time to rethink SR&ED and redirect the approximately $3 billion that we annually forego in revenues to mission-directed approaches. This would allow us to provide significant funding to missions without even touching the pure basic research support of the granting councils.
We’re at a turning point for mission-driven research. It’s time for Canada to “CARPA diem“—seize the day. Does Canada have what it takes?