Ag researchers calling for ongoing research evolution

The new federal government’s been saying all the right things, but that hasn’t translated into a lot of concrete action yet

A new federal government with a new focus has agriculture researchers feeling more hopeful, but they’re still waiting for clear signs research spending will rise.

Serge Buy, the Agriculture Institute of Canada’s CEO, said the budget promised additional funding for agriculture research and restoration of federal labs that do basic science. It also restated a plan to boost investments in agriculture science as part of a review of fundamental research. So far those words have yet to translate into any concrete action.

“We’re cautiously optimistic about the direction outlined in the budget,” Buy said in an interview. However, the AIC, the national voice of private, university and public researchers, hasn’t been able to meet Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay to present its plan for a national agriculture research policy.

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As well, it’s up to Science Minister Kristy Duncan to set a full-blown review of government science and research in motion and there are no indications of when or if that will happen.

Mandate

When the Liberal cabinet was sworn in Nov. 4, MacAulay received a mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Among his responsibilities was developing a policy to “invest in agricultural research to support discovery science and innovation in the sector. To better allocate research funding, you should establish a transparent process that involves food producers.”

MacAulay recently told the Commons agriculture committee that the government wants its research funding to ensure “scientists are able to stay on the cutting edge.” That will ensure consumers at home and abroad that Canadian food is safe and healthy. He provided no details on his plans for a transparent process.

The AIC held a two-day conference in mid-April on how to disseminate to the agri-food community, consumers and governments the information gained during research projects. That is the next stage in the evolution of national agriculture research policy the institute developed last year after wide-ranging consultations.

AIC is also working on ways to ensure science breakthroughs in one field of research are shared with the rest of the scientific community to maximize the benefits.

It will post online the comments on its research policy from scientists and researchers made before and during the conference. By the end of June, it plans to release an overview of the policy following a review by board members and of comments made during the consultation process.

New policy

In general terms the 40 organizations that participate in AIC support the new direction of agriculture research policy and AIC’s role in promoting Canadian agriculture research. However, Buy says AIC wants to keep research policy in a state of constant evolution, to reflect the reality that research needs are likewise constantly changing.

“We need to ensure it keeps evolving,” Buy said.

With this in mind, AIC intends to hold a national conference on how research can aid agriculture’s role in environmental protection in 2017.

“We’ll have a year to look at the topic,” Buy said. “In the meantime, the institute will be fanning out across the country to engage stakeholders on research issues.”

Buy added part of the process is an ongoing dialogue with the politicians and bureaucrats.

“We want to make sure that what’s in the mandate letter comes to pass,” Buy said. “We want to start the discussions.”

While the minister has been meeting with groups in the agriculture sector, there has been no public discussion about research.

Buy also said the AIC is looking at the feasibility of hiring a chief scientific officer and a director of research to enable it to keep track of all the public, private and university research projects.

Doing so will help eliminate duplication and make sure the agri-food sector, its stakeholders and customers all receive the full benefit of these investments.

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