For the record

Canada leads the world in deep ocean science and technology. Let’s keep it that way.

By Martin Taylor, President and CEO of Ocean Networks Canada, University of Victoria

A version of this column was published in The Hill Times (Ottawa), Nov. 5

The federal government’s science and technology strategy, released earlier this year, identifies international excellence as the goal in determining priorities for major new S&T investments. It builds upon the 2006 Council of Canadian Academies analysis of areas of Canadian S&T strength and competitive advantage—environmental sciences and technology, natural resources and energy, health and related life sciences and technologies, and information and communication technologies.

These areas of strength have been substantially bolstered in the last decade through federal investments in university research, especially the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Canada Research Chairs program, increased funding to the federal granting councils, and establishment of the Indirect Costs of Research program. One critical outcome has been the development of a small number of major science initiatives (MSI) in Canada that have the capacity to support world-leading and transformative research programs across the country. Prominent among these are the NEPTUNE Canada ocean observatory, the Canadian Light Source, the Sudbury Neutrino Laboratory and the Amundsen icebreaker.

In each case, the MSI infrastructure places Canada in a position to achieve and sustain international research excellence in niche areas of global competitive advantage, while affording major benefits to Canadians through applications of S&T to economic development, public policy and public education and outreach. A prime example is NEPTUNE Canada, the world’s first regional cabled ocean observatory.

Understanding the oceans has never been so critical to our national and global future. The oceans feed us, determine climate patterns, and harbour in their depths many of the biological, chemical and geological processes that continue to shape our planet. Our existence literally depends on them. The NEPTUNE Canada deep-ocean observatory is an 800-km fibre-optic cable system on the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate off the coast of British Columbia. Led by the University of Victoria, it is securing Canada’s place at the forefront of international ocean S&T.

NEPTUNE Canada is a platform for transformative science focused on earth-ocean system processes and events. It is enabled by new technologies that provide continuous power to remotely operated instruments at ocean sites of maximal scientific importance, yielding continuous data via the Internet. The observatory will for the first time allow land-based scientists from St. John’s to Victoria and around the world to conduct offshore and deep-sea experiments remotely, responding instantly to events such as earthquakes, tsunamis, fish migrations, plankton blooms, storms and volcanic eruptions. The observatory will support broad studies on topics such as seismic and tsunami activity, ocean-climate interactions and their effects on fisheries, gas hydrate deposits, and seafloor ecology.

NEPTUNE Canada is the focus of world attention as the prototype for observatories being planned by the U.S., Japan, the European Union and Taiwan. Canada is in the lead and will be for at least the next five years. This creates significant entrepreneurial advantages for Canadian companies to develop new marine technologies and turnkey ocean-observing systems, and to transfer spin-off technologies, services and data management systems into other commercial sectors.

Governments at all levels are also recognizing the value of NEPTUNE Canada data as the basis for evidence-based public policy in such vital areas as climate change, natural hazard prediction, resource assessment and national security. There is an immediate opportunity to apply NEPTUNE Canada knowledge, infrastructure and monitoring capability to address urgent research-based and security issues in the Arctic, as signaled in the recent Speech from the Throne.

The science and its applications made possible by Canada’s capital investment in NEPTUNE Canada align exactly with the goals and priorities of the federal S&T strategy. Now is the time for Canada to capitalize on the unique opportunities created by NEPTUNE Canada, and the other major science initiatives in this country, by funding the operating costs required for them to achieve their full potential and sustain Canada’s world leadership in our niche areas of S&T.

The Canada Foundation for Innovation has been instrumental in funding the capital costs for these most recent MSIs, but is not mandated to support the substantial ongoing operating costs. The federal granting councils do not have the capacity to assume these major additional costs either. Other international jurisdictions—the US, UK and Australia—face similar challenges but have made provision for funding the long-term operating costs in concert with the initial capital investments. Canada must now act quickly to match these strategic moves, so that the advantage we’ve gained through our capital investment doesn’t slip away.

The Science and Technology Innovation Council just appointed by Industry Minister Jim Prentice has an opportunity to address this issue as an urgent priority for Canadians. In an increasingly competitive global S&T race, there’s no time to lose.

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