A Clear and Present Opportunity: Renewing the Canada-U.S. Science and Technology Partnership

Posted on Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Author: Prof. Paul Dufour

Paul Dufour

Senior Fellow, ISSP, uOttawa
Principal, Paulicyworks

If scientific leadership and global knowledge partnerships are to be the benchmarks of a new post-pandemic image then clearly both Canada and the US have an opportunity to reimagine their unique science and technology relationship. The bilateral summit held on February 23 between Justin Trudeau and Joe Biden mapped out some key areas of interest, many of which will require attention to ongoing and long term investments in knowledge and research. 

As the Canadian and US federal governments continue to integrate, and otherwise harmonize economic, security and environment approaches within the CUSMA agreement, the pandemic crisis and the US’s new approach to statecraft has created a window of opportunity to strengthen the Canada-US research and innovation space. After all, it is arguably the world’s most extensive knowledge relationship. We combine for more than one-third of the world’s R&D and over one-half of all Canadian scientists who co-author internationally do so with US counterparts. (Between 2017 and 2019, Canadian scientific publications co-authored with the US numbered 65,364. The next collaborator was China at 26,604.)

The new President is working to re-establish America’s ties with the world and underscoring the need  for science leadership in key technologies. The US Congress is also moving ahead with an agenda to strengthen American S&T leadership. Indeed, the budget appropriations of 2020 outlined significant increases in basic research and innovation, including a 9% increase for the National Institutes of Health (now at US$43B, larger than Canada’s total national R&D spend of CDN$34.5B); a multi-billion total increase in the budgets of the National Science Foundation over 3% (now at US$8.4B); a boost to the Department of Energy’s science programs; an 8% growth to NASA for space science and lunar mission (along with celebrating the recent Perservance landing on Mars); and a US$1B planned hike in science, engineering and math education (STEM) to prepare students and citizens for the future. In short, basic research support is on the rise and future science budget appropriations are also likely to see increases as more investment is targeted to tackling the Covid-19 crisis and post-pandemic research and innovation, especially in biotechnology, AI and cyberspace.

It is worth remembering in this context the 2011 statement issued by a bipartisan group of well-respected politicians and research leaders who made the case for stronger use of science in U.S. foreign policy: “Many of our most pressing foreign policy challenges—energy, climate change, disease, desperate poverty, and underdevelopment, and WMD proliferation—demand both technological and policy solutions. In these and other areas, U.S. national security depends on our willingness to share the costs and benefits of scientific progress with other nations.”

With the Covid-19 crisis, investments in research and knowledge have taken on a much larger impact in both Canada and the US, as has the joint collaboration between the two research ecosystems on vaccines, biomanufacturing, genomics, and other health and social sciences related issues. As Prime Minister Trudeau said on February 23 in the meeting with President Biden, “The President and I discussed collaboration to beat COVID-19—from keeping key supplies moving and supporting science and research, to joint efforts through international institutions. We’re standing united in this fight.”

Rebranding Canada’s image as a tech-savvy science leader needs to be taken more seriously. Clearly, investments in knowledge can be an important entrée as a strong global partner. Canada can take advantage of its large investments in science from the 2018-2019 budgets (and selected health-related research spends in 2020), as well as new provincial and industrial initiatives. As I have written for years, Canada should be ramping up efforts for joint knowledge cooperation and help shape a revitalized North American research and innovation space. 

What will it take?

A roadmap with a long-term strategic focus would help, not to mention more resources in consulates and the Embassy in the US to take advantage of emerging developments and new opportunities—with staff knowledgeable about science, public health and technology—not just trade. (Currently, Global Affairs Canada has eight counsellors in various US posts dedicated to technology related relations and a full-time science policy diplomat in Washington, DC.) It also requires recognition that investing in science and innovation with our southern partner (and others) is a long-term proposition involving significant and sustained funding of both the domestic science base and skilled people, starting with the research granting councils and universities and colleges, and academies, but also including the federal government research labs and other key institutions such as Genome Canada, CIFAR, CFI, Mitacs and the National Research Council.

At the heart of all of this is the need to pay attention to the next generation of talent. As John Stackhouse and others have noted, there is a significant potential with the Canadian diaspora studying in US universities and colleges including the entrepreneurship pool based in the US. Canada has key platforms around which to grow and enhance its talent pool through research chairs and superclusters, among other incentives. According to recent data, Canada is the second most preferred destination for US students after the UK. As Canada’s chief science advisor remarked in her May 2018 Science editorial Canada’s Call, “With science and technology playing a prominent role in everyday life, access to science education and to science-based careers is ever more essential for inclusive growth and for women's empowerment.”

Second, any renewed continental focus, in addition to key leadership and sustained commitments from all sectors, will require a well-articulated strategy for a successful partnership. For instance, the funding councils under the Canada Research Coordinating Committee and its support for international, interdisciplinary, high-risk research, could work more closely with counterparts in the US in shaping this new research agenda (along with the provinces and states who already actively engage in various joint technology ventures and skills cooperation).

It also means taking up the foreign policy challenge to enhance existing cooperation in key areas where both countries are already quite active. These include Arctic research, AI, advanced manufacturing, space science, environment, green energy, natural resources, the ICT and quantum computing arenas, where Canada and the US increasingly share common platforms for digital media and health security linkages. For example, the Mission Innovation and Clean Energy Dialogues, AI, quantum science, and oceans agendas from a previous White House Office of S&T Policy could serve as models to explore strategic engagement via major bilateral programs. The Biden administration can build upon these models, along with other areas such as climate change and environment including water quality and shared management of the Great Lakes, fisheries and wildlife protection, and parks. Of course, all of these opportunities must embed and build on the extensive social sciences and traditional knowledge research cooperation that exists between each country. A multidisciplinary and EDI focus is the new mantra for more effective results.

Since the US and Canada are both keen to ally with other emerging players in selected technology areas, why not piggyback on these ventures and foster tri-lateral or multi-party partnerships where appropriate? One could envisage such existing arrangements with the US and Mexico where a good deal of trilateral activity already exists. This could form the basis of a key agenda for the revival of the North American Leaders’ Summit touted by the two leaders in February.

Finally, with the well-established reputation in supporting science and technology for capacity building in the developing world, Canadian institutions such as IDRC and Grand Challenges Canada could link up with US partners in strengthening knowledge capacity within regions in need, including of course, through the global efforts of multilateral institutions to develop more effective pandemic responses.

It is a reality, not mere rhetoric, that science and innovation operate in an open and global environment. Well-designed science diplomacy can be a key platform for new research and outcomes for mutual benefit. The American Association for the Advancement of Science’s recent science diplomacy events—which have featured Canada's chief science advisor— and the ongoing Carnegie Group meetings of science ministers are two recent examples that can certainly can give impetus to this enhanced collaboration. There is a history of efforts to strengthen the bilateral relations around science and diplomacy, some of it encouraged by previous joint meetings of the US and Canadian science advisory councils and between science advisors and ministers. Further down the road, efforts to increase research linkages could lead to a re-imagined science diplomacy partnership with the activist AAAS, the National Academies of Science as well as with NASA, NSF and NIH. 

The August 2021 INGA conference slated for Montreal might also provide some opportunities for enhanced engagement on both the science diplomacy and advisory fronts. This April’s annual, student-focused Bromley Memorial Event, a collaboration between two capital universities, the University of Ottawa and George Washington University, offers another mode of engagement for our next generation of scholars and researchers.

The Canadian foreign policy statement of 50 years ago presciently stated that “Canada’s most effective contribution to international affairs in the future will derive from the judicious application abroad of talents and skills, knowledge and experience, in fields where Canadians excel or wish to excel.” Let’s put this to the test today, making Canadians healthier, wealthier and wiser, while also responding effectively to Canada’s global responsibilities for the SDGs and other grand challenges. A reimagined Canada-US partnership is a clear and present opportunity.

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