Science And Technology: Central To Canada's Success

Wednesday, October 1, 2008 - 00:00

The Editor interviews Dr. Arthur J. Carty, former National Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of Canada and currently Executive Director of the University of Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology.

Editor: Dr. Carty, would you tell our readers something about your professional experience?

Carty: I was born in the United Kingdom. I attended the University of Nottingham, where I received my bachelor's degree and Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry. My first academic position was at Memorial University in Newfoundland, and after two years there I went on to the University of Waterloo in Ontario as an assistant professor. In time I progressed to Professor, Chair of Chemistry and Dean of Research. In 1994 I was invited by the federal Minister of Industry to become President of the National Research Council of Canada and after almost ten years in the position, Prime Minister Paul Martin asked me to serve as National Science Advisor (NSA). I continued as NSA through a change of government until March 31 of this year when I retired because the position was being discontinued. I am now Executive Director of the Waterloo institute for Nanotechnology (WIN), an exciting opportunity to build a globally competitive centre for nanotechnology at Waterloo.

Editor: What is the National Research Council of Canada and what is its mission?

Carty: The NRC is the federal government's principal in-house R&D agency. It undertakes, assists and promotes scientific and industrial research in areas of strategic national interest. Quite simply, NRC attempts to put science, technology and innovation to work for Canada.

Editor: And the responsibilities of the National Science Advisor to the Prime Minister?

Carty: This was the first time a National Science Advisor to the Prime Minister had been appointed, and there was no set mandate. It was my responsibility to establish a mandate, and I started by reviewing what the government said about science and technology in its economic statements, Speeches from the Throne, and so on. The mandate that I developed was, essentially, to provide sound and independent guidance to the government on the directions to take, and the priorities, for science and technology. This constituted the overriding theme of the mandate, but there were a number of components, including the assessment of priorities for investment and the need to balance the support of excellence in science and technology with the ultimate benefit to the economy and to society. On the latter, there was also a significant debate at the time on how to capture greater economic benefits from research carried out in universities by improving commercialization and fostering innovation.

We also looked at Canada's international role and how best to bring the benefits of our R&D capacity to address the challenges of the developing world. On government science, there was a recognition that over time the capability of federal government laboratoaries to produce effective research and development had deteriorated. In part this was the result of underfunding, but it also had to do with an inability to establish horizontal collaborations, with other partners in the federal government, with universities and with industry. Accordingly, we looked at the mechanisms necessary to build and foster partnerships.

Developing a rational and transparent framework for the evaluation and funding of major science initiatives was also part of the mandate, as was building a stronger science culture in the country. Serving as Canada's science ambassador abroad was also a key role. Finally, technology foresight was also included in the mandate, and we put together a team charged with looking ahead to see what was on the horizon in terms of new science and technology.

Editor: In March of this year you retired as the government phased out the post of Science Advisor and turned its responsibilities over to a newly formed Science and Technology Innovation Council. What can you tell us about the government's decision?

Carty: I retired because the position was discontinued. Ostensibly, this was the result of a new science and technology strategy announced by Prime Minister Harper in May of 2007, which involved the creation of a new Science and Technology Innovation Council - STIC. The idea, I believe, was to focus responsibilities that heretofore had been spread among a number of entities into a single body. A number of highly thought of individuals have been appointed to STIC, but it does not report publicly and one can question whether it is at arm's length from government. I do not think that this is the most productive way to run a science advisory system, which, to be effective in my view, requires both a full-time science advisor and a number of expert committees or councils and a duty to make periodic public reports of its activities.

Editor: Please tell us about some of the accomplishments that you have seen during your time in the Canadian government. Are these initiatives still in place?

Carty: At this point in time I would say that there is continued government support for many of the initiatives that were created over the past ten years or so and which have proven their value. The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), for example, is an arm's length foundation endowed by the government to help rebuild research infrastructure and equipment in universities. CFI has dramatically changed the map of infrastructure on Canadian university campuses. The Canada Research Chairs Program was created by the government to establish 2,000 endowed research chairs in universities across the country. This initiative invests something like $300 million a year to attract and retain some of the world's most accomplished and promising minds and, accordingly, stands with the CFI at the center of a national strategy to make Canada one of the world's most important countries for research and development. Likewise the Canada Graduate Scholarships Program. All of these initiatives serve to make Canada a very attractive place for both young and established researchers. I think, however, it is very important to understand that the world of research and development is very competitive and does not stand still. If these programs are not sustained, the people who have come to Canada as a result of the attractive environment we have created are likely to consider leaving. I trust that the present and future governments of the country understand this as well as their predecessors.

Editor: Toronto is one of the largest biotech and life sciences research hubs in North America, with a high level of innovation and much lower research costs than in the U.S. This did not just happen. Can you tell us about this development?

Carty: It came about, in part, as a result of some of the things I've just mentioned. Over the past ten years, the amount of governmental funding that has been put into university research has increased to the point where the total amount invested as a percentage of GDP is the highest among the G-8 countries. This has been a major stimulus.

As a consequence of this new funding, some very innovative programs have been launched. One of them is the MaRS - Medical and Related Sciences - Discovery District, which is located in downtown Toronto. This is a new model for technology transfer and commercialization, a non-profit innovation center connecting science and technology with entrepreneurs possessing business skills, networks and capital to accelerate the creation and growth of successful Canadian enterprises. Its location, beside the University of Toronto, is no accident. MaRS is meant to serve as a forum, an innovation meeting place where people from the research hospitals connected with the University of Toronto, university researchers, scientists, entrepreneurs and financiers can discuss the latest developments emerging from what is now one of North America's major centers for bio-tech, medical and life sciences research.

That being said, Canada still has some catching up to do compared to the U.S. with respect to the role that entrepreneurship and venture capital play in this arena, but we are aware of the gap and are seeking to close it. Two years ago studies by an expert panel of the federal government and by the Conference Board of Canada came to similar conclusions: the universities need to improve their skills in translating research into commerce and innovative corporate enterprises, and private capital needs to accept greater risks in backing such efforts. The contrast with Silicon Valley, which is a place associated with spectacular success but where failing enterprises are also commonplace, is pretty stark. Canadian investors tend to be more risk-shy than their American counterparts, and that can have a dampening effect on innovation. We are working on this.

Editor: In a highly competitive global environment science and technology provide a country with a real competitive edge. What, in your opinion, is necessary to ensure that the science and technology establishment is properly supported so as to maintain that edge?

Carty: First of all, I would say that building an innovative knowledge-based economy requires a strong R&D foundation. That means institutions that produce new concepts and ideas on a continuing basis - the well springs of innovation in a sense. The next step involves the ability to translate such concepts into something with value in the marketplace. Universities may be the source of a great deal of innovation, but they do not always have the kind of expertise that translates a great idea into something with practical utility. For that to occur, I think, the private sector must have the ability to assess the commercial value of new scientific and technological developments and possess the willingness to invest in such developments. Maintaining a competitive edge entails both of these capabilities.

Editor: How about the future? Where do you see Canada as a platform for science and technology development over, say, the next five years?

Carty: As a nation we have tremendous advantages. Canada's natural resources constitute a foundation for our economy that is almost unique in the world. Some would say that our wealth in terms of natural resources is also a disadvantage, comparing our situation with that of Japan, for example, which must depend almost entirely on its intellectual resources. The point for Canada is that we cannot rely forever on our mineral resources, our agriculture, our water, and so on to maintain a competitive edge in the global arena. We must continue to build our capacity to innovate if we are going to be able to compete. I think we understand this as a nation, and I think that we will see continuing support for science and technology development in the years to come.

In looking at Canada apart from the obvious position that the country enjoys as a consequence of its natural resources, it is very gratifying to see the respect we have gained throughout the world for the many excellent institutions we possess and for the cutting-edge research they continue to produce. As a country, we are punching far above our weight.

In the Canadian context, the combination of factors favorable to building and maintaining a strong knowledge-based economy is quite extraordinary. The one thing missing at present, in my view, is a strong forward vision for the country - a plan for the next ten years or so - but I have every expectation, in light of what has occurred over the past ten years, that this will be addressed.

Please email the interviewee at carty@uwaterloo.ca with questions about this interview.