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Interview / Kirsty Duncan

Interview / Kirsty Duncan

Ministry of Innovation / Science & Economic Development / Government of Canada

As an academic turned politician, you’ve been a strong advocate of evidence-based decision-making in government. How do you think we can incorporate more scientific thinking into the discussion, while avoiding the politici­zation of science?

As the Minister of Science, I’m proud to be part of a government that truly values science and the central role science plays in a thriving clean economy. Our government understands that science provides the evidence we need to make sound policy decisions that may impact our economy, environment, health, industry and society for the better. Already, our government has signalled its commitment to science by reinstating the long-form census and ensuring that federal scientists can speak freely about their work and including scientific ana­lyses to inform decision-making. In addition to these actions, I am committed to establishing a chief science officer who will play a key role in advising the government on important science-related matters. I have been consulting widely with stakeholders and with parliamentarians from all parties on how best to establish this advisor position, which will further elevate science to the highest decision-making levels.

What are some other initiatives you are working on to promote basic science?

In June, I tasked an independent panel with conducting a comprehensive review of federal support for fundamental science to ensure that it is strategic and effective and that it places the needs of researchers first. The panel’s chair, David Naylor, former president of the University of Toronto, is working with a team of nine distinguished research leaders, including Art McDonald, Canada’s most recent Nobel laureate; Martha Piper, former president of UBC; and Anne Wilson, an emerging researcher at Wilfrid Laurier University.

What are the scope and objectives of this review?

We believe that if we are not constantly trying to improve, we will soon be left behind by the fast-paced global economy. Sadly, Canada has lost ground internationally with respect to research funding over the past decade. While there is much to commend about current federal programs that support fundamental research efforts, we have a research ecosystem that has evolved over many years, and now is the right time to
review that system in its entirety. Canadians expect our funding of research to be stra­tegic and effective and to be focused on meeting the needs of scientists, while also contributing other benefits to Canadians. Thus, the review will assess the programs we have that support Canadian science and scientists. The scope includes the three granting councils, along with certain federally funded organizations such as the Canada Foundation for Innovation. As part of this review, we are asking research­ers, Canada’s academic community, and all Canadians to identify the changes needed to address any gaps in federal support for fundamental science and to position Canada to meet new and emerging research challenges.

Despite some progress made in recent years, women and equity-seeking groups remain underrepresented within the academic and scientific community. What do you think the government can do to ensure there are more opportunities for these groups?

Our government values equality and diversity. In fact, we believe diversity is our greatest source of strength. As a former scientist who happens to be a woman, I take every opportunity to try to lower the barriers women still face in pursuing studies and entering careers in science. I am committed to working to increase the number of women and those who are otherwise underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I am also encouraging the post-secondary community to improve the representation of women in academia, including in leadership positions in university administrations. I consider it part of my duty to engage leading researchers, students and institutional officials in increasing the participation of women in science at all levels of academia. I am also showing leadership on this issue internationally — for example, through discussions with other G7 science ministers earlier this year. Canada’s future rests on our ability to innovate and make new discoveries, and I can think of no other area where diverse voices can make such a profound difference.

Is this also one of the reasons why you decided to reinstate the University and College Academic Staff System survey?

The survey's reinstatement is a crucial step toward understanding Canada's community of university researchers and faculty. Once we understand the face and composition of Canada's research community, then our government can begin the real work of collaborating with universities to help them recruit faculty that reflect Canada's diversity. Diversity, after all, is the source of our nation's strength.

Many of CAUT’s younger members are concerned about declining success rates for early-career research grants. Do you share these concerns? Could we be doing more for younger academics?

Ensuring that early-career researchers have the support and the tools they need to succeed is very important to me. My objectives are to support all scientists and to have a science ecosystem driven by excellence — one that fosters creativity and allows emerging talent to thrive. In the 2016 federal budget, our government recognized the need for additional, unfettered funding to strengthen Canada’s research capacity and excellence. To meet that goal, we are providing an extra $95 million per year to the granting councils on an ongoing basis, the largest increase in a decade.

In recent years, federal policy has encouraged greater collaboration between academic researchers and industry. Is there a danger that such partnerships can affect the inte­grity and independence of academic research?

I understand and respect the freedom that our scientists need to pursue their academic interests. That is why I worked hard to ensure that the additional $95 million in the federal budget for the granting councils would be unfettered. These councils’ investments in university research will allow researchers to further their studies independently and in the interest of pure discovery. Such discoveries so often set off a chain reaction leading to new products and services that our small and medium-sized enterprises can expedite to market, making them available to Canadians who stand to benefit from the outcomes of scientific research. In addition to the path that starts with science and leads to tangible outcomes, colla­borations between research and industry can support young students by providing them with the training opportunities they need to link theory to practice. Collaborations must be mutually agreed-upon and must balance the freedom of academic partners with the delivery needs of business leaders. Universities are places where students, researchers, administrators and members of the community are encouraged to work together to contribute to our collective knowledge. It is precisely this knowledge that supplies the evidence our government needs to make the informed decisions that will benefit Canadians for years to come.

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