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This Week in Space For Canada: October 30th, 2009

All in all, Canada is a pretty good place to be if you’re going to conduct basic research and this week in space for Canada is all about basic research as we report on and react to the discussions occurring at the 2009 Canadian Science Policy Conference.


Attendees at this years conference included Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, John Milloy, the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities and Minister of Research and Innovation, Preston Manning (these days with the Manning Centre for Building Democracy) plus the presidents of the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Ontario Centres of Excellence and about 220 other scientists, engineers, policymakers, industrial R&D managers and others with an interest in the intersection of policy, science and technology.
There were also at least two Canadian Space Agency people (one of who connected with me after the conference to compare notes and correct some of my obvious errors). They generally kept a low profile and attended to network and learn.
General consensus as to the best presentation of the conference goes to Preston Manning who suggested increasing the number of science-receptive people at senior political levels in Ottawa (evidently there aren’t very many there now), raising the strategic and financial commitment to R&D in the private sector and bridging the communication gap between scientists and politicians (a gap possibly there because scientists talk less than politicians).
I found the sessions interesting but only the beginning of a process that needs to take place over the next year or so. Conferences of this type seem to spend a lot of time and effort building a process to define and categorize the existing situation but then allow their freshly organized process to break down when it comes to offering up and implementing solutions.
One or two sessions could have used a rethink. For example, the Thursday morning sessions on “Who speaks for science?” filled with scientists looking for someone to tell their stories could have been combined with the session on “Science Journalism, Media and Communications” especially since the media people in the second session rather thought they knew who was speaking for science (they thought they were) and were looking for scientists with stories to tell.
As well, the session on the “Democratization of Science” seemed a little disjointed and could have focused more how the internet is changing the nature of research and development. Science today is now often public and “out loud” without the “middle man” to screw things up and with peer review done in real time (at least according to “Astronomy and the New Media: Astronomy Cast Episode 148).
I’m also more aware of the processes and methodologies in place among the American venture capitalists when it comes to science commercialization than I am with the Canadian methodologies outlined at the conference (the US seems to mostly depend on financial modeling algorithms to tell them that out of every ten companies they fund, seven will go bankrupt, two will barely break even but one will make enough money to cover all the other losses and provide a reasonable return on investment). I’m not totally sure I understand the role of all the intermediaries, government agents and business development people I met over the last few days and who seem to be a part of our process.
I would suggest an alternative, more Canadian focused model with quite a few case studies available where university “centers of excellence” grow up around specific science and technology applications and their spin offs and it might have been worthwhile to have at least a few case studies of this nature. For example, we could have taken a look at Surrey Satellite Technologies which grew up in the 1980’s around the University of Surrey and how the pattern is repeating itself today at UTIAS and other universities. Or we could have had a case study related to what NORCAT has been doing lately.
According to journalist and author Paul Wells, who writes a column for MacLeans (and served as a session chair at the science policy conference), the real heavy lifting is still to come “it falls to the good folks at Perimeter Institute to provide the national leadership with what promises to be an ambitious conference on all this stuff — in spring, 2011.”
Perhaps that’s when solutions will start to be offered up for implementation. Until then, that’s all for this week in space for Canada.

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Staff Writer