Interview with Arthur Carty

Arthur Carty is Canada’s first National Science Advisor to the Prime Minister. A former head of the National Research Council, Carty took up his new duties on April 1. He spoke with Joaquim P. Menezes, assistant editor of CIO Government Review during a recent visit to Toronto to deliver the keynote address at the Centre for Advanced Studies Conference (CASCON). Excerpts from the conversation follow.

Q. Are you excited about your new position as National Science Advisor?

A. I am, and for many reasons. I take over my position at a time when federal commitment to R&D is being expressed in many different ways. The creation of the position of National Science Advisor to the Prime Minister – for the first time in Canadian history – is one of them. It’s clear the Prime Minister sees science and technology (S&T) as a key driver of economic growth. In the past seven years Canada has invested heavily in research and our relative standing has dramatically improved. But now we must translate our knowledge investment into commercial success. We need to get ideas and innovations out of our minds and into the marketplace …that’s what I hear when I travel across the country and talk to scientists, entrepreneurs, politicians and others.

Q. With so many issues on the table, what are your main focus areas?

A. My overall goal is to put together a long-term plan for directions and investments in science and technology and devise mechanisms to harvest economic benefits from our initiatives and investments. That’s a challenging task with so many issues competing for my attention. I started off with no staff, but now we are seven people. Compare that with David King, my counterpart in the U.K. who has 130 people in his office. Clearly we have to prioritize. So for starters, we have taken on a limited number of files – only those we think we can make progress on. Commercializing the results of S&T research is definitely a focus area – and it’s also a federal priority, as was apparent from the Throne Speech. If we do not generate enough industrial activity from S&T, it could prejudice future investments. Another initiative – and this is the prime minister’s mandate to me – is to bring Canada’s expertise and technologies to bear on issues and problems of developing countries such as China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Thailand, as well as the poorer countries of Africa. The over-all target is to dedicate 5 per cent of federal R&D expenditure to investments in the developing world.

Q. What about R&D investments in Canada? Would you say that government expenditure on science and technology is helping to reverse the brain drain?

A. There are two aspects to the brain drain – quality and quantity. Canada does benefit every year from a net inflow of S&T researchers and engineers from other countries. On the flip side, we have also suffered an outflow of some of our best young scholars, which while relatively low in terms of total numbers, is fairly strong in its impact. Is government investment in S&T helping to change that? I think so. Take the 2,000 Canada Research Chairs created four years ago. I had one of my analysts look at their impact – and what we found was very encouraging. Returning Canadians filled 20 per cent of the Tier II chairs. These folks were attracted back to Canada, not just by the CRC program, but by the over-all improvement in the R&D environment here … better infrastructure, and better research funding in general.

As the CRC program evolves, we expect its impact will be even greater – in terms of attracting top scholars from other countries. And federal investment has also been channeled into several other programs. For instance, the Canada Foundation for Innovation that since its inception in 1997 has been helping our universities, colleges, research hospitals and non-profit research institutions create the infrastructure – equipment, buildings, labs and IT support – for world-class research and technology development.

This capital infusion and other federal initiatives have had a powerful impact on the university research environment to a point where R&D spending in Canadian universities is the highest, per capita, among all the G8 countries. In the same period, federal research council funding has more than doubled in size, while networks and centres of excellence have also grown.

Q. What’s your take on a recent statement by Mike Lazaridis, Research in Motion co-founder, that the governing Liberals in Ottawa and Toronto have failed to adequately fund scientific research?

A. In 2003-04, total Canadian federal science and technology expenditures stood at $8.5 billion – of which $5.5 billion, or 65 per cent, went to R&D. Around $13 billion in new federal S&T spending has been injected into the Canadian R&D system in the past seven years – with universities as the chief beneficiaries. That’s quite impressive – and, as I said, it’s already having an impact on our universities’ ability to attract the best talent. But we certainly need to do more in the area of industrial R&D funding. Federal investment in industrial innovation has increased just 10 per cent in 10 years. That track record clearly needs to be improved. However, R&D investments and initiatives must be balanced with equally strenuous efforts to harness the economic benefits of science and technology. That’s why commercializing the results of research is high on the federal government’s priority list. Mr. Lazaridis efforts to promote research are admirable. I was in Waterloo for the opening of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics – which Mr. Lazaridis and two of his colleagues funded to the tune of $120 million. Then there is his $33 million contribution to the Institute of Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo – an investment that will ensure Canada makes huge strides in an area where we have a significant portion of the world’s experts

Q. How vital is public-private sector collaboration to R&D commercialization initiatives?

A. It’s crucial. There’s been a realization over the past six months that commercialization is a complicated affair. It involves much more than technological innovation or securing venture capital. It also requires knowledge of the marketplace and customer – and no single entity can provide all the answers. That’s why we need partnerships between government and industry, as well as within government and between the various levels of government. Canada has real strengths in areas like nanotechnology. But we lack a well-coordinated government strategy to move forward in these areas. By contrast, countries like the U.S. and France really have their act together. They coordinate all of the agencies involved and share the information, as well as the funding.

Q. You advocate a multi-disciplinary R&D strategy. Why?

A. Yes, I have always been a purveyor of interdisciplinarity. Many big advances in technology have been the result of this cross-fertilization between disciplines. This is particularly true in biotechnology (areas like genomics and proteomics) and nanotechnology. The challenge is that researchers in many disciplines do not automatically work together. So there is a need – and also great opportunity – for collaboration across interfaces where combinations of research skills and knowledge are needed to solve problems. There are for example major opportunities to apply computational science and software development to data mine, extract, disseminate and visualize scientific data amassed from experiments and observations in genomics, astronomy, particle physics, climate change and more. I believe IT is an enabling technology platform for new advances in multidisciplinary R&D.