Of Roadmaps and Reliable Cooperation: A Clear and Present Opportunity

Posted on Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Author: Prof. Paul Dufour

Paul Dufour

Senior Fellow, ISSP, uOttawa
Principal, Paulicyworks

“The National Science Foundation (NSF) has a rich history of not only pursuing direct partnerships with other agencies, private industry and like-minded countries, but also fostering environments where partnerships thrive, because they are powerful ways to leverage resources and deliver results. We need partnerships for accessing a broader network of ideas, innovations and experiences to address and solve real-world problems.“

  • (Testimony by NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan to the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Committee on Appropriations United States Senate, 13 April 2021)

The NSF Director cited above, an alumnus of the University of Ottawa, delivered a dynamic and passionate keynote lecture on April 15 for the Bromley Memorial Event, in which he picked up this notion of partnerships—especially with Canada. Science and research partnerships between the two countries have a long and rich tradition. Allan Bromley, the Canadian-born science advisor to President George H.W. Bush, was a major exemplar of this.

The US, as Dr. Panchanathan underscored in his remarks and as the chart below highlights, is undergoing a profound shift in how it will approach its governance, funding and architecture within its knowledge and innovation ecosystem.



Canada has a clear and present opportunity to take advantage of this potentially significant new funding with the US. Part of this is a result of the recent federal budget, but a more strategic approach and reformed knowledge architecture will be needed—with key leadership and support within the respective knowledge communities. 

Considerations for a Smarter Partnership

The 2021 February statement from the White House on a Canada-US Partnership Roadmap has laid out a refreshed agenda for joint mutual interests. Roadmaps are not new between the two countries—there is a longstanding partnership that encompasses an array of common goals. Geography, culture, economics, history all matter. So too do the shared visions of prosperity, diversity, equity and justice for all citizens. 

But the Americans’ fresh approach to statecraft along with massive injections of funding into R&D has created a window of opportunity to strengthen the Canada-US research, science 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 second most frequent collaborator was China at 26,604.)

Grand challenges such as the current pandemic, future pandemics, and climate change, offer a new window of opportunity for increased cooperation—as do joint efforts centred on global health security. (A reminder that both countries experienced this vividly 20 years ago following 9/11 where the two scientific communities undertook collaborative efforts to address biological, chemical and other threats from terrorism).

Today, a touchstone for a renewed partnership needs to focus on the next generation of talent. This is what Canadian-born science advisor to the US President embodied in his efforts to enhance and build a greater Canada-US STI partnership.

As John Stackhouse and others have noted, there is significant potential for more technology and research linkages 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 its research chairs and superclusters, among others. According to recent data, Canada is the second most preferred destination for US students after the UK. And as Canada’s chief science advisor remarked in an editorial in the journal Science, “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.”

Second, any renewed continental focus, in addition to key leadership and sustained commitments from all sectors, will require a well-articulated strategy for successful partnerships. It also rests on a recognition that investing in science and innovation is a long-term proposition involving significant and sustained funding of both the domestic science base and its skilled people. This starts with the research granting councils along with universities, colleges, and the academies. For instance, the funding councils under the Canada Research Coordinating Committee and its support for international, interdisciplinary, high-risk research, along with a new EDI manifesto that parallels the NSF mission, could work more closely with counterparts in the US in shaping this new research agenda.

It is also critical to partner with the provinces and states who already actively engage in various joint technology ventures, research and skills cooperation.

A smarter partnership means taking up the foreign policy challenge to enhance existing cooperation in key areas where both countries are quite active. These include Arctic research, AI, advanced manufacturing, space science, environment, clean energy, natural resources, quantum computing, and networks where Canada and the US share common platforms for digital media and health security linkages.

The Biden and Trudeau administrations will likely be building upon these ventures, along with other areas such as climate change (the subject of the global summit hosted by the President on April 22) 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 modes of 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 an arrangement existing between Canada, the US and Mexico, where a good deal of trilateral activity already exists. This could form the basis of a renewed agenda with the revival of the North American Leaders’ Summit touted by the two leaders in the February roadmap.

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

Collaboration for Smarter Science Diplomacy

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 science diplomacy events—which have featured Canada's chief science advisors and science ministers in the past—and the ongoing Carnegie Group meetings of G7 science ministers are two recent examples that certainly can give impetus to this enhanced collaboration. 

Canada and the US also have a long history of efforts to strengthen 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.

The next generation agenda remains critical for moving past the pandemic and enhancing the respective joint approaches as partners for progress. Organizations like Science and Policy Exchange, the Canadian Science Policy Centre, ST Global consortium and others can bring fresh perspectives to the bilateral agenda. 

One area worth developing further is science advisory mechanisms and youth councils. How can the exchange of ideas between the science community, the next generation and public policy makers be encouraged? Can this advice and its implementation fit more strategically within the decision-making structures, across national borders, for everyone’s benefit?

A constructive agenda awaits. As a Canadian foreign policy statement once underscored:

The 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 citizens healthier, wealthier and wiser. A reimagined Canada-US partnership is a clear and present opportunity.

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