Grand challenges are also grand opportunities for Canada’s S&T community

Posted on Monday, November 30, 2020

Author: Bob Walker

Senior Fellow, ISSP
Retired Senior Executive

On November 17, 2020, the ISSP hosted a panel entitled Aligning Science, Society and Policy for the Grand Challenges of our Time at the Canadian Science Policy Conference. This blog is an adaptation of the author’s remarks. 

It seems that the world is awash these days in grand challenges. But perhaps grand challenges also present grand opportunities. For Canada’s Science and Technology community, let’s look at where the grand opportunities may lie.

A first place to look is with respect the relationship between the S&T community and governments. I expect we would all agree that governments should play a crucial role in addressing the grand challenges facing society. No doubt we would also agree that Canada’s S&T community has much to offer to governments in helping address these challenges, from climate change to national security. The question then becomes, how do we do so, or how do we do so better? 

I'd suggest there are two interrelated dimensions to this relationship. First, the federal government is a funder of the nation's S&T enterprises, their capabilities and capacity. Secondly, the federal government is a customer of the products of the S&T community’s research—its knowledge, evidence, technology, ideas, innovations, advice and talent. 

We would do well to give more thought to how this customer-supplier relationship can work better, and therein lies an opportunity. I do worry that the S&T community too often focuses on the first perspective, while casting the second in the language of science advice or the science-policy interface. There is need for more nuanced thinking. 

To first order, the federal government organizes its machinery around four big portfolios that provide complementary lenses on the national interest, the so-called “public good”: the economy; public health and environmental stewardship; public safety and national security; and the nation’s social well-being.

All of these portfolios are customers of S&T, but the customer needs have significant differences. Through the lens of S&T, what are the emerging opportunities for economic prosperity? What are the emerging risks to public health and/or to the environment, and how can these be mitigated? Are there new threats to public safety and national security, and how can S&T help us better understand and address them? What are the systemic barriers to equitable opportunity for Canadians, and how can we do better? 

And here's the rub. Grand challenges don't make it easy for us to stay in one of these four lanes. Indeed, with grand challenges we see crosswalks between all of them. Take the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a public health crisis, yes, but it is also significantly disrupting many sectors of the economy and the nature of work, it has laid bare threats to national security through over-dependence on offshore supply chains and has further exposed social inequities that leave the most disadvantaged in our society as the most vulnerable to the negative impacts of the virus.  While the S&T community is not the only source of new ideas to address such issues, it most certainly can play an important role.

Rethinking this customer-supplier relationship is an important opportunity for increasing the impact and relevance of S&T, in essence by considering these multiple customer perspectives at the same time as we pursue our science. Of course, there are many complexities and open questions as to how best to deliver such S&T. These conversations are beginning. This approach picks up on the thinking behind big ideas such as inclusive innovation, sustainable development goals and convergence research, each of which advocates for S&T-enabled outcomes that have simultaneous positive impacts on multiple dimensions of the public good.  

But what are the aspirations of Canada and Canadians with respect to the public good? This question brings me to a second grand opportunity, one that relates to the relationship between our national S&T community and society.  

I expect we would all agree that there is a long list of challenges where there is a pressing need for national, inclusive conversations that transcend the echo chambers and polarization that too often constrain us.  Conversations about where we are as a society today, where we aspire to be tomorrow, and what the journey could look like.  We are not going to necessarily agree on the destination or what the journey should look like. But we have a growing obligation to listen to different perspectives, hear alternative views, and understand where our aspirations may have unintended consequences.

There is an important opportunity for our nation’s S&T community to be a convenor and facilitator of such conversations. I have been pleased to see many of Canada’s universities embrace the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals — a buffet of grand challenges. These goals are being used as a platform for both informing new approaches to cross-disciplinary experiential learning for the student population and next generation of scientists, and also for providing a unifying set of targets for the university’s research enterprise. This approach is already stimulating new conversations across our campuses and resembles what we need nationally. It falls to our national S&T community comprising academia, public and private sector scientists and our fourth-pillar science-based organizations to come together and leverage such experiences into enabling even more inclusive conversations. 

Grand challenges are also grand opportunities. The nation’s S&T community should seize them. Canada will be the better for it.

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