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When Naylor Crossed Lamontagne: Support for Science Policy Needs a New National Roadmap

November 9, 2017
By: 
Paul Dufour
Fellow and Adjunct Professor
Institute for Science, Society and Policy, University of Ottawa

We suggest that government funding of basic research should emphasize quality rather than quantity, that the social sciences, multidisciplinary efforts, and projects relevant to Canadian needs should get higher priority, and that the peer system should be improved."

No, this is not the initial recommendation from the Naylor advisory panel that reviewed fundamental science, but it could well have been. Rather, the quote is from the concluding volume of the Senate Special Committee of the Senate on Science Policy in 1977 (otherwise known as the Lamontagne Committee).

At a CSPC panel on the future of Canada’s Fundamental Science Review report a panel of distinguished speakers spoke to the growing intersection of science and public policy; among them the chair of the report David Naylor. In his remarks, he referred to the fact that it has been 40 years since there has been such a review; a comment that the science minister has often made in her own statements about the expert panel she appointed.

But that four-decade-old review--the Special Senate Committee on Science Policy chaired by the Harvard-trained economist, Maurice Lamontagne-- had a much broader remit at a time when the interface between science and policy was nascent in Canada. The Senate Committee was launched 50 years ago in 1967 to consider and report on the science policy of the federal government with the object of appraising its priorities, its budget and its efficiency in the light of the experience of other countries and the requirements of the new scientific age. Indeed, the federal government already had a structure for science advice and research in the guise of the National Research Council, the Science Secretariat to the Privy Council Office and the Science Council of Canada, and the OECD was just completing a review of Canada’s science policy as seen from the international perspective. But this was not sufficient according to the Senate inquiry; a gap remained in better understanding of how all of the science and innovation systems were connected.

Lamontagne had considerable grist for the Senate mill and began a large-scale public inquiry that was to last a decade when its fourth and last volume was ultimately published in 1977. Begun in March 1968 with a number of hearings and over 12,000 pages of written briefs and evidence, the first volume reviewed the historical evolution of Canadian science policy and its efforts compared to other selected countries; the second volume described the targets and strategies needed for strengthening science, technology, and yes---innovation; and the third described the government organization that would be needed to implement a more coherent national science policy.

It is the fourth and last volume that drew the attention of the Naylor expert panel but only from the optic of the role of basic or fundamental research. Lamontagne’s final report, on the other hand, explored the evolution of science support in Canada, the then emerging crisis in government (eroding federal labs) and poor funding of university sectors along with the persistent weakness of the industrial sector in support of R&D and innovation.

It concluded with some commentary on unfinished business. Among this latter list was how to involve Parliamentarians more effectively in the debate of science in public policy; the need for an institute on future studies (akin to foresight surrounding emerging technologies); a Canadian Innovation Bank for venture capital support and a new Canada Innovation Award; increasing the budgets of the granting councils including addressing the indirect costs for research; transforming the NRC; and having government departments and agencies appoint science policy advisors to name a few. New structures of governance for science policy needed to be examined.

Today, 50 years after its debut and despite the Lamontagne Committee’s calls for some coherence on a national scale, we still have a rather patchworked science and innovation policy framework that has a long way to go if the country and its citizens are to meet the challenges of the emerging knowledge age with all of its lights and shadows. As Lamontagne put it, the standard and quality of life in this country will be largely determined by the way in which the people and their institutions respond to the prospects and perils of the applications of science and technology.

Is it not time for a new truly national roadmap?