Op-ed

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Canada is back? Not so fast when talking international science

by Daryl Copeland

The Hill Times
December 6, 2017

Were the earth to be equipped with a collision warning system, the alarm would almost certainly be clanging incessantly.

A plurality of expert opinion is now convinced that the health of the planet is deteriorating and that, as a direct result, humanity’s long-term survival is in jeopardy. Although some aspects of that argument have been contested, it seems clear that we are collectively hurtling towards a tipping point beyond which remediation and recovery will be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

There are no military solutions if we are to avert that disastrous outcome. It will be the knowledge-based problem solving of science, and the networked political agency of diplomacy that provide the necessary tools.

But there is much to be done, and the clock is ticking.

The way we were

Canadian performance in international science and technology has lately been mixed, and over the past decade considerable capacity has been lost. Between 2006 and 2015, budgets and programs were cut severely, thousands of scientists were muzzled or terminated, and support for basic science took a huge hit. Rebuilding is today a precondition if new opportunities are to be seized.

Canada was once a pioneer in environmental advocacy, development assistance, and creative diplomacy. Running through these enterprises there exists a strain of activity which is usually referred to as “international scientific co-operation”—the term science diplomacy has only in recent years come into widespread parlance. A review of the past 50 years illustrates convincingly that the combination of science and diplomacy has often paid handsome dividends.

Pierre Trudeau energetically supported, and co-chaired the Cancun Summit on North-South Relations. His government was deeply involved in the Law of the Sea negotiations, and signed the treaty in 1982. Trudeau’s still-born Strategy of Suffocation, aimed at slowing the arms race, and his much-maligned, late Cold War Peace Crusade, had they borne fruit, would have both relied heavily upon scientific verification. 

Brian Mulroney significantly upped Canada’s game by rolling out a string of environmental accomplishments. The government concluded the Acid Rain Treaty with the U.S.; hosted the meeting which produced the Montreal Protocol on ozone layer depletion; and led in the organization and delivery of the landmark Rio Earth Summit (UNCED). That convocation produced an unprecedented range of achievements.

Under Jean Chrétien, the pace and intensity of Canadian science diplomacy ebbed, and support for international science was reduced as a result of the deficit-cutting measures associated with the Program Review. Still, his government marshalled a great deal of scientific evidence to win the battle for public opinion and defeat Spain in the so-called “Turbot War,” waged over overfishing; strongly supported the essential and invaluable, but in large part unheralded Global Partnership Program; and ratified the Kyoto Protocol.

Paul Martin’s brief tenure as prime minister was not particularly noteworthy from the perspective of this analysis. Still, he established the Council of Canadian Academies, and appointed a national science adviser whose writ—until the position was eliminated by the Conservative government in 2008—extended to issues of foreign policy.

When compared against the carnage inflicted by the Harper government’s “War on Science,” this cumulative record shines. For almost half a century, science occupied a privileged position within the firmament of Canadian foreign policy. If the government of Canada is to succeed in re-establishing that aspect of its liberal internationalist credentials, some new directions will have to be pursued.

Going global?

This country has on the books a clutch of bilateral S&T agreements. While some have yielded tangible benefits, most arose from the need to produce an easy “deliverable” for photo-op purposes on the occasion of a ministerial visit, and now languish. Nevertheless, in the wake of the “decade of darkness” from 2006 to 2015, there have recently been some encouraging signs.

Despite the contrary messaging on pipelines and tar sands development, and faltering innovation performance, Canada has returned to the fold on climate change, and has embarked on a joint venture with the U.K. to advocate the international elimination of coal as an energy source. Canada is no longer likely to be awarded the Fossil of the Year Award for obstructing progress. The position of chief science adviser has finally been filled, although the staff and budget are small and the position is now housed in a line department rather than the political centre. A domestically focused science and research funding committee has been established, scientists were unmuzzled, and there is talk of creating a new inter-agency body to co-ordinate the government’s international scientific programs and activities.

While the outlook is not entirely bleak, Canada—unlike Quebec—has not really stepped up to the plate. The government is underperforming on its commitments to science. The findings of last spring’s fundamental science review (the Naylor report) highlighted the need for enhanced international scientific collaboration, but the government has been slow to respond. Research and development spending lags seriously behind our competitors. The mandate letters presented to Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, and Science Minister Kirsty Duncan lack any specific reference to science diplomacy or objectives in international S&T more generally. There is no strategy or plan to enlist and fast-track diaspora scientists and scientific refugees, an untapped resource, which could rapidly augment Canada’s depleted capacity.

Global Affairs Canada (GAC) has for many years toyed with the idea of appointing a departmental science adviser, but that has not happened, despite the rising trend elsewhere. While a science and technology division does exist at GAC, it serves the trade and commercial side of the department. Policy planning papers have been written on science diplomacy, but they are gathering dust, and the concept—let alone the practice—remains largely alien.

Canada signed the UN Arms Trade Treaty, but—as underscored painfully by the controversial decision to proceed with a large sale of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia—export controls have not been tightened. Perhaps most discouragingly, Canada refused to join 122 other countries in support the landmark UN treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

With a general election only two years away, the G7 presidency coming in 2018, and a UN Security Council bid announced to gain a seat for 2021, the case for the government to move adroitly on issues of international science cooperation seems unassailable. How else will this country be able to meet its commitments, or contribute to attaining of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, all of which feature a significant S&T component?

Many moving parts in play

Many of the points set out above were debated extensively this year’s Canadian Science Policy Conference, and registered by members of a high-level delegation from International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, who are seeking a resumption of Canadian membership. While rejoining that organization would certainly leverage opportunities for new partnerships and add to Canadian capacity, any accelerated internationalization of Canadian science is bound to be a complex undertaking. There are many moving parts, and more than a few of them are rusty, ill-fitting or non-existent.

Takeaways? It will require considerably more than bureaucratic tinkering, or reliance upon Justin Trudeau’s adoring media and glittering personal brand to get Canada meaningfully back into the game.

Former Canadian diplomat Daryl Copeland is an educator, analyst and consultant, a research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, a policy fellow at the University of Montreal’s Centre for International Studies and Visiting Professor at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and the Academy of Diplomacy and International Governance (UK). He is the author of Guerrilla Diplomacy: Rethinking International Relations, 12 scholarly book chapters, and some 175 articles in the popular and academic press. Follow him on Twitter @GuerrillaDiplo.

Image credit: Andrew Meade

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