Open Access Should Lead on National Science & Tech Strategy

My weekly Law Bytes column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) looks at the recently released national science and technology strategy.  The column includes new information obtained under the Access to Information Act that highlights publisher opposition to open access in Canada and demonstrates the need for government leadership on the open access issue.  I argue that maximizing the value of Canada's investment in research requires far more than tax breaks and improved accountability mechanisms.  Instead, government must rethink how publicly-funded scientific data and research results flow into the hands of researchers, businesses, and individuals.

Achieving that goal requires action on two fronts.  First, the government should identify the raw, scientific data currently under its control and set it free.  Implementing expensive or onerous licensing conditions for this publicly-funded data runs counter to the goals of commercialization and to government accountability for taxpayer expenditures. Ottawa has already taken some important steps in this direction.  Last month, it announced that Natural Resources Canada was making its electronic topographic mapping data available to all users free of charge over the Internet.  The topographic data, which can be accessed at the aptly-named GeoGratis, provides information on the location of landscape features – such as lakes, rivers and elevations as well as roads, railways and administrative boundaries. This information is used for commercial, non-commercial, and research purposes by governments, academia and the private sector.

Second, Ottawa must pressure the three federal research granting institutions to build open access requirements into their research mandates.   With over a billion dollars invested each year by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), an exceptionally important opportunity to enhance the benefits of publicly-funded research is being lost due to Canadian inaction on the open access issue.

In fact, according to internal correspondence and documents recently obtained under the Access to Information Act, it is becoming increasingly apparent that a Canadian open access strategy will only to fruition with leadership from the federal government.

While CIHR is expected to conclude an open access plan this year and the SSHRC recently launched a pilot project for funding of electronic journals, internal documents reveal that both agencies continue to face stiff opposition from the publishing community.  For example, as CIHR was consulting last year on its open access plans, former Industry Minister John Manley facilitated a meeting between the CIHR President and senior executives from Reed Elsevier, one of the world's largest publishers, to allow them to express their concerns with the health research open access initiative.

Meanwhile, SSHRC documents suggest that there is support for open access among the Council staff members, yet an open access plan was partly short-circuited by external opposition from publishers such as the University of Toronto Press, Canada's largest and oldest scholarly press, which last year received over a quarter million dollars in government handouts as part of the Book Publishing Industry Development Program.

Most discouragingly, NSERC, the leading science funding agency in Canada, has not taken any position on open access.  Indeed, internal NSERC documents reveal that Council personnel repeatedly admit that open access is not a priority. Moreover, notwithstanding regular correspondence acknowledging that NSERC now trails its counterparts in other countries, earlier this year a senior official wondered aloud about "the consequences of not doing anything for a while longer," while one Canadian researcher, who sought support to publish in the acclaimed Public Library of Science (an open access collection of journals), was advised that there is "little enthusiasm for directing funds toward this activity."

Canadians and Canadian researchers deserve better.  The path toward making Canada a world leader through science and technology should include a strong commitment to facilitating the use of, and access to, publicly funded research and government-sponsored scientific data.


  1. Stephen Smith says:

    Project Director, Flintbox
    Most research organizations measure commercialization success in terms of direct financial returns to the institution. This approach to technology transfer has created success but it does not address the need to promote transparency, collaboration and better accessibility to research and research artifacts. Clearly, having more research results in the hands of industry will have a larger economic impact over the long term.

    The University Industry Liaison Office (UILO) at UBC developed processes and systems to scale knowledge transfer and the dissemination of research artifacts. The systems evolved into an application called Flintbox that is now being used in over sixty research organizations in Canada.

    While good systems provide better access and can help to scale transactions they are only one component of what is needed in order to turn our investment in research into better economic results.
    • A stronger policy framework is needed that supports transparency and access in technology transfer and the institutional structures, processes and best practices need to be developed to make this to happen.
    • Systems that provide access need to be interoperable; they need to be able to exchange and share data and provide as many access points to this data as possible.
    • Fostering demand requires a multi tiered approach. Most early stage research is highly specialized and the commercial application for it is not readily apparent. Expecting demand to follow supply provides limited (and probably insufficient) results. It is essential to use the right combinations of technology clusters, bundling initiatives and international licensing to produce results. Many technologies fall into a long tail model and it is unrealistic to assume that there is sufficient demand within Canada to further develop the research. Flintbox has licensed Canadian technologies to 109 countries and we believe that it is possible to offer preferential licensing terms to Canadian companies and to develop international relationships without externalizing the economic benefit of Canadian funded research.

  2. generic_idea_machine says:

    and what about promoting S&T at the grassroot level?