Technology & Science

Garneau's next mission: bring science to politics

Former astronaut and Canadian Space Agency head Marc Garneau, now the Liberal party's science and technology critic, will be asked to weigh in on space and research funding as well as net neutrality and copyright reform in Parliament.

Even before Liberal member of Parliament Marc Garneau won his riding of Westmount-Ville-Marie, the former astronaut was no stranger to politics, having served as head of the Canadian Space Agency from 2001 until 2006 and then losing a bid to win a seat in the House of Commons in the 2006 federal election.

Now Garneau, who for years distinguished himself as a scientist and Canada's first man in space, finds himself in an unusual position of trying to bring science and technology issues to the forefront, not as an administrator, but as a critic.

Garneau, the Liberal party science and technology critic, will be asked to weigh in on the Conservative government's policies on familiar topics such as space and research funding, but also, alongside new industry critic Gerrard Kennedy, on areas such as internet neutrality and copyright reform. spoke with Garneau about science and technology policy, areas he'd like to see the government focus on, and what role space has in Canada's future.

Obviously, given your background, the direction Canada takes in space is of interest to you and I know you've expressed in the past that Canada should have a space policy. What should that policy look like?

When I was pushing for a space policy, I was a private citizen, and I still feel that way but I will obviously have to work with my party to see they share that opinion. But a space policy should essentially answer the fundamental question, which is what can space offer to us here in Canada? We have a whole bunch of government departments here in Ottawa, but there's never been a coherent space policy put together. We were the third country in space, but it's been more ad hoc than it should be, and a space policy can bring it all together. Ultimately, it will decide our priority. Is earth observation our first priority? Is developing our space manufacturing sector our first priority or is space science our first priority?

We currently spend about $300 million a year on space, and if we look at other countries, they spend a certain amount. Are we spending the right amount? This is something that crosses many, many boundaries and essentially the space agency has been working with these groups on a one-to-one basis, and to some extent, there has been a bit of a silo mentality. We need to bring it all together. How that is best brought together and who takes charge of co-ordinating it, well, it could be done in any number of ways and by any number of people, but the important thing is that we do it.

Can you extend that line of thinking to the question of what our science policy should look like?

There has been an assumption that our science strategy should be focused ultimately and almost exclusively on what ends up being able to make us competitive in terms of export markets and services, by what it can do to expand our industrial capability, as opposed to being also important because it advances knowledge.

But I want to make the point that all science, whether it's applied or pure science, has value. I think we have to be careful about zeroing in on things that we say OK, if we focus on this science, we'll develop products and services that we can sell abroad. I think if you look at Industry Canada, there is a minister of state for science and technology [currently Conservative MP Gary Goodyear] but it's under Industry Canada, the implication being that it's ultimately being driven by industrial considerations. I think it's a bit misleading to have that.

It's my personal view, and this hasn't been discussed in great detail with my party, but I would like to raise the stature of science within Canada. I think it needs to be given a more prominent role, almost in a sense that it stands by itself.

I was certainly dismayed when the government eliminated the national science advisor position and I didn't understand the reasoning for the Conservatives doing this. [Former science advisor Arthur Carty] was somebody who was the apex of the pyramid and he had the ability to speak to the very top leaders, including the prime minister, and give them the unvarnished truth of where our shortcomings were in science and where our strengths and priorities should be. I'm sorry that the link has been killed because I think it is important that the scientists of this country have that kind of voice.

You mentioned that science and technology is currently under the banner of the ministry of industry. But from 1971 to 1990, it had its own ministry in the government. Would you like to see a return to that?

I personally feel it needs to be a strong voice at the table, at cabinet, and that's my personal feeling. I'll admit I'm biased because of my background. But having worked with scientists a good part of my professional life, I believe that science really is one of the things that we need to focus on in government for the future of the country. Now if the minister of state has that voice, then that's fine. But I'm not quite sure it is the case. What I feel is most important is that a strong voice exist at the table to champion it and make everyone else see how important science is.

There are a number of hot-button issues that cross into both industry and technology, particularly the issues of net neutrality and copyright reform. Let's consider net neutrality: do we need legislation or regulation to enshrine net neutrality principles, or should service providers be trusted to not interfere with what people use their internet connections for?

I'd rather not comment on it but I'm certainly aware of the issue and I want to, before I say anything, be able to speak more intelligently about it and need to understand both sides. Related to that is the issue of the copyright bill, and that is one that I'm more familiar with. There was a great deal of interest within my riding on the proposed Bill C-61 so I did have a chance to look at that more clearly. The Liberal position is established on that, in that we would, before putting forward a bill, would consult widely, because there were a surprising number of people who contacted me who had questions and reservations about the current bill. It's a complex issue, and obviously we want to achieve the right balance between allowing people who create material to earn a living but also at the same time allow the consumer to have access to things that are for their own particular use.

More of an industry question, but how do you feel about foreign ownership restrictions on Canadian companies, both for individual companies, as in the case of MDA, or for industries as a whole, such as the telecommunications industry?

I was one of the people who appeared in front of the industry science and technology committee on the potential sale of MDA and I was against the sale and one of the points I wanted to emphasize was that Canada Investment Act, which the Conservative government has looked at and has modified, is an important act that must go beyond just looking at the economical considerations of a foreign takeover. It is my opinion that we need to look at a number of factors that must come in that will help us make the right decision about whether foreign ownership is in the best interests of Canada, and some of those issues deal with security and strategic considerations which I think need to be brought in.

I'm not a protectionist; I do believe one should try and avoid that, but I also believe we need to be intelligent about certain areas. For example, I wouldn't be surprised in the years to come to see environmental considerations brought in when the Canada Investment Act is invoked, to see what the environmental ramifications are of foreign takeovers. That's not something that's been brought up until now, but I think the fact that the government blocked the sale of MDA indicated that they were looking beyond simply economic interests of the country.

Specifically, do you have an opinion on foreign ownership rules for the telecommunications industry?

At this point, I can't say that I'm familiar with both sides of the argument in detail enough to speak intelligently, but I hope to be very soon.

How should we address Canada's declining status in global broadband? How do we get it to rural areas?

When I was at the CSA, one of the things that happened that the CSA was involved with was related to the launch with Telesat of the Anik F2 satellite, which brought broadband capability to rural areas. So yes, I believe very strongly in it. Having said that, there has to be a business case for it and, to some extent, education to make people aware that this kind of service is now possible. I think this is an area [where] Canada has been very consistent. We want to be the most connected country in the world and that has been for a very long time federal government policy.

All of these things ultimately have to compete for dollars with the federal government and we're hearing the words recession and deficit right now. How does one get across these ideas and put forth the notion that these things are important and we need to spend money on them at a time when government is already talking about cutting back and tightening belts?

Well, the idea is you start doing things when things are going well so that you can be prepared for the future. I strongly believe that if we focus more heavily on investment in science and technology, then we will be more able to weather downturns in the economic cycle because we will be less dependant [on] our traditional economic base.

It's easier to do when we're flush but, at the same time, any economic plan needs to have a long-term strategy and science and technology falls into long-term strategy. Back in the '90s, when the Liberal party said we got to get a grip on these deficits and started to wrestle them to the ground, it was at that same time that they created the Canada Foundation for Innovation, they put in the Canada Research Chairs, they started up Genome Canada.

They recognized back then that they needed to revitalize the scientific community in this country, particularly in our universities, to modernize our infrastructure to try and attract leading scientists into Canada and to keep them. I certainly hope the current government has some strategy and has some vision to continue to take us in that direction because the fact is that today we are slipping in terms of our innovation, our productivity and in our manufacturing sector relative to our competitors, so we are not doing well enough.