In a world where work and research are increasingly unfettered by national borders, Canadian policy needs to shift to accommodate this new reality, says Public Policy Forum president Edward Greenspon.

The Public Policy Forum (PPF) was founded three decades ago in Ottawa by federal civil servants to raise the level of policy-making and governance. An independent non-government organization, the PPF promotes dialogue and collaboration among leaders in all sectors of society.
Journalist and author Edward Greenspon was named PPF president this past March. The 59-year-old has had a high profile in Canada’s media landscape since 1986 when he joined The Globe and Mail after working on newspapers in Western Canada. At the Globe he was a business reporter and editor, Ottawa bureau chief, European correspondent and editor-in-chief for seven years. That was followed by four years as vice-president of strategic investments for a division of Torstar Corp. and then two years as editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News. A Carleton University journalism and political science graduate, Greenspon also holds a master’s degree from the London School of Economics.

Do we need to have what you have called elsewhere “a thoughtful, wide-ranging discussion” about the role of science in Canadian society?

We don’t think of science as a competitive advantage generally in the country. Personally I don’t think the concept of brain drain and brain gain makes a lot of sense in a digital global world. The concept is a brain chain and people will circulate in and out of countries and they’ll circulate knowledge digitally to one another. 

Supposedly all that helps innovation. But in Canada we seem to make it very difficult for innovators to get their innovations actually used. Why is that? 

It’s maddening. It really is maddening, if you can’t use one of the few strategic advantages you have, such as the country’s procurement system. Some countries do that but we don’t. In the past we have used procurement to build strategic advantage; I’m thinking particularly of telecommunications. We do have it in our DNA, so why can’t we apply it? I think it’s partly the fragmentation of authority, both federally and provincially but even within governments.

What’s the role of the science, engineering­ and technology community­ in the discussion of Canada’s innovation­ health?

The scientists should understand that they’re in the public-good business and that science is an iterative process where we acquire more knowledge based on an open system. They should have an obligation to be teachers of the importance of science. Secondly they do receive a lot of public money so perhaps there’s also an obligation for being financed by taxpayers to make sure people are familiar with their work.

What about the relatively new federal government. Is it sending the right signals on innovation?

There’s something almost counterintuitive about government trying to lead the way on innovation because innovation is about dissent. One of our great advantages is that we have a culture that’s very permissive about dissent. It’s a paradox: how does government contribute to an innovation climate, or at least try to not inhibit the development of a climate where the innovation that exists within the minds of many individuals can bloom?

So how do they?

The first principle is do no harm, so don’t force people into programs that tie them down in endless bureaucracy. The system in many ways is antithetical to enterprise. If you’re serious about promoting innovation, you’ve got to be innovative yourself. You’ve got to walk the talk. Now that’s much more difficult for government than for private enterprise. 

Let’s look at something that’s been around for decades and nothing much has been done: development in the North. What would be the innovative way to start thinking about that?

I think we always overpromise and under deliver on the North because we’re highly romanticized about it and we forget how extraordinarily large it is and how extraordinarily small we are. I don’t know what innovative looks like in the North but I think innovative means you have to rethink classic notions of sovereignty in an area that is so expansive. And think of it as an area of collaboration that is also in keeping with the culture of the northern people. For example, could polar nations collaborate on search-and-rescue in the same way that Canada and the United States now patrol the North militarily through North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)?

You said you preferred to talk about brain chain, instead of brain drain or brain gain. The Canada Excellence Research Chairs program brings scientists here for seven years with large grants. Is that old thinking in your view?

I wouldn’t say that’s old thinking. I’d say it’s insufficiently new. Brain chain means that people are going to come in and then they’re going to go out and we should think of that as a good thing. One of the current affronts to brain chain would be if you go out for five years you lose your right to vote, a major expression of your citizenship. That doesn’t strike me as good policy in a brain-chain world. Canadians who spend time outside of the country teach the world about Canada, they bring things you learn in the world back to Canada, you develop relationships that are beneficial. So instead of saying you lose your vote, what we should say instead is that you can keep contributing to an RRSP. 

What makes a brain chain a chain?

You maintain the links and the links may take you out and they may take you back in. They may take other people in and out. So I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to attract people here for seven years. Some of them may sink roots and stay longer and impart knowledge to their grad students, their postdocs and to many other people. We have to think of all of our policies in a world where there’s so much mobility. I think that mobility bridges understanding and shares knowledge so it’s a good thing. So how do we have policies that are supportive of that rather than opposed to that?