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Investments in Big Science Initiatives and International Science Partnerships.

Presented by the Partnership Group for Science and Engineering

August 15, 2008


Canada is one of the largest countries in the world, yet historically it has been a minor player in international science projects, including those of strategic importance to the country. Collaboration on international science not only exposes Canadian scientists to breaking discoveries, it provides the critical mass required for certain major research initiatives, as well as access to scientific talent and intellectual property, representing huge leverage of the country’s investment. It also allows Canadians to benchmark against other countries and to influence international programming while enhancing Canada’s reputation as a serious international partner, which can influence leading international scientists to consider working here. Greater involvement and investment in selected major international initiatives will help change the perception of Canada from that of a small player who must join with other small players for access to a scientific programme, to that of a key partner.

International science is defined as initiatives and Secretariats requiring the coordinated financial, logistical or intellectual resources of several countries and sectors. Big science is defined as initiatives of a significant magnitude that require resources beyond the capacity of any single institution, funding agency or country to operate, and which are expected to yield very significant results. Big science includes all levels of initiatives from consortia at facilities such as CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research); the world acclaimed Sudbury Neutrino Observatory Laboratory; or the Ocean Drilling Programme, to major research networks such as the Polar Environment Research Laboratory on Ellesmere Island; and NEPTUNE1, which will be the world's largest cable-linked seafloor observatory.

Canada subscribes to a number of international science programmes and hosts the international secretariats for a few. It can ratchet up its reputation, contributions and most importantly, its benefits, by coordinating funding sources, supporting infrastructure and operational costs; hosting international science secretariats, and removing strictures affecting the environment for innovation and economic development. These measures will enhance the reputation of Canadian science and scientists in the international sphere, increase awareness by industry of the roles played by Canadians, and will encourage the retention of research and innovation in Canada.

The Partnership Group recommends:
• That the federal government adopt a strategic approach to investments in big science initiatives and international science partnerships. The approach must incorporate financial support to ensure full benefits to Canadians and their economy.


The Partnership Group for Science and Engineering (PAGSE) is an association of over 25 professional and scientific organizations representing 50,000 members from academia, industry and government sectors. It represents the Canadian science and engineering community to the Government and seeks to advance research and innovation for the benefit of Canadians. PAGSE is not a lobby group, but a cooperative partnership that addresses broad issues of science and engineering policy at the national level.

PAGSE has endorsed the May 2007 federal S&T strategy: “Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage”. The present brief proposes measures: to maintain Canada’s G-8 leadership in public R&D performance; to be a magnet for highly skilled people; to inspire and assist Canadians to perform at world class levels of scientific and technological excellence; and to encourage partnerships and build global leadership. These measures are consistent with the federal policy commitment:

“Canada’s federal government will make Canada a world leader through stronger domestic and international partnerships by: … Strengthening Canada’s ties to the global supply of ideas, talent and technology. The government will assess Canada’s S&T presence on the international scene and explore options to further improve Canada’s ability to contribute to and benefit from international ST developments … . “2

A major concern in Canada has been, and continues to be the need to translate research into innovation more effectively. The reasons for this need are numerous and complex, but include the need for an effective policy for Canadian scientists to be involved in international big science initiatives.

Science is by definition international. Advancements in knowledge and technologies benefit all and require international co-operation and innovation. Canada has a network of science and technology counsellors at selected embassies abroad; granting councils support access to international teams and facilities to the extent possible, and the National Research Council supports Canadian membership in 29 international scientific unions or programs. However attempts to provide the environment for international innovation by measures such as tax incentives have never been particularly successful; the need to align science with current government policies limits scientists’ ability to pursue promising new directions; practices of granting bodies are not attuned to the funding needs of major collaborative efforts; and the limited funds available for subscriptions to international programs leave virtually no room to subscribe to new partnerships.

It is necessary to change direction. This can be accomplished in large part by:
• encouraging the coordination of funding sources for greater efficiencies, to eliminate the problems of piecing together matching funds from multiple sources, and of Canada’s productive senior scientists having to devote large amounts of time to multiple grant applications;
• ensuring that funding for work during ‘International Years’ is available in a timely (and competitive) fashion, so that research outputs and contributions from Canada are in concert with those of other countries;
• ensuring sustained support for major initiatives (e.g. 10 years, with mid term evaluation), to allow a flow of trained people, scientific results and applications / benefits;
• supporting international science Secretariats in Canada. These currently include PICES: the North Pacific Marine Science Organization, which is housed at the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, B.C. and the Secretariat for the World Climate Research Programme’s SPARC initiative (Stratospheric Processes and their Role in Climate), hosted by the University of Toronto. These clearly enhance Canada’s reputation for leadership. More support would permit Canada to be as active as Europe, the Nordic countries and Asia.
• becoming a full signatory and leading participant in international treaty organizations such as the Antarctic Treaty System.
• encouraging Canadian researchers to participate in international initiatives driven by scientific, rather than policy objectives, thus helping them to identify over-the-horizon issues of potential economic and scientific importance;
• strategically investing in components of big science projects, e.g. investment/tax incentives along the knowledge-value chain, including investments for translation of research into innovation; and in collaborative infrastructure to advance interdisciplinary research.
These changes would enhance the international science reputation of Canada - fundamental to an increased awareness by industry of the role of Canada in innovation – and would enhance the perception of Canada as a desirable strategic ally.

In its 2007 brief, PAGSE raised similar issues and recommended measures to ensure equal participation in national and strategic international partnerships, and access to international scientific programs/data. It suggested there was a mismatch between Canada’s international (bilateral) commitments and its ability to implement these negotiated agreements. It also commented that fiscal restraints had seriously weakened the ability of many federal departments to support travel, meetings and other costs of partnerships. Federal departments and Canadian universities need access to funds for basic implementation of these commitments. PAGSE’s 2006 Brief had suggested that an innovative form of “risk capital” was essential for Canada to establish or maintain its international credentials and to benefit from S&T on the world scene: we repeat this suggestion. We also suggest establishment of an International Opportunities Fund, to empower Canadians to partner on international initiatives for research and technology development.

Increased focus on support for Canada and Canadian scientists to lead and to participate as full partners in international science initiatives will have multiple benefits. Support is needed for science, for scientific infrastructure and for international science administration. Collaborative international research among sectors involves sharing of costs (financial leverage) and results, as well as federal recognition of the importance of access to new ideas and technologies from around the world and measures to archive and access new knowledge. The enhanced reputation of Canadian science and scientists in the international sphere will present Canada as an important strategic partner, lead to greater awareness by industry of the innovative role of our scientists and will encourage the retention of research expertise and innovation in Canada.

That the federal government adopt a strategic approach to investments in big science initiatives and international science partnerships. The approach must incorporate financial support to ensure full benefits to Canadians and their economy.

1North-east Pacific Time-series Undersea Network Experiments
2Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage, Industry Canada, 2007, pg. 86.