Earlier this month, Canada's top government leaders, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Industry Minister Maxime Bernier, and Finance Minister Jim Flahery unveiled the government's new science and technology strategy. Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada's Advantage was billed as a new and focused approach, yet most of the plan involved little more than repackaging Liberal programs or promising corporate tax incentives to encourage greater private sector research and development.
While much of the plan still deserves support – Canada leads the G-7 countries in public research – it ultimately represents a missed opportunity. 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.
In fact, given a recent Australian study that found that a five percent increase in access and efficient use of research results could deliver A$628 million in economic and social benefits, a top government priority in this area should involve moving beyond stale "commercialization" rhetoric by actually facilitating the use – whether for commercial or non-commercial purposes – of government-sponsored research.
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.
The GeoGratis initiative should serve as a model for how government data can be released unrestricted into the private sector, providing the public with greater access to the data they helped fund and spurring new commercial opportunities for Canadian businesses who can supplement the raw data with value-added services.
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.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at email@example.com or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.