In June 2016, Canada and the EU celebrated the 20th anniversary of their joint Science and Technology Agreement and 40 years since the opening of the EU’s representation in Ottawa. A long-standing cooperation coined by bilateral investments in research and innovation with a focus to this date on reinforcing the links between industry and research, fostering knowledge to stimulate education, job creation, economic growth and welfare on both continents. Considerable progress has been done through this partnership over the years, including in the fields of Social Sciences, Health Research, Aeronautics and Agricultural research. The new EU-Canada Administrative Arrangement will likely boost this cooperation further in other key areas.
Despite irrefutable success, a new window of opportunity presents itself at this moment to strengthen scientific ties through the new EU-Canada free-trade agreement CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement). CETA holds the potential for long-lasting economic, environmental and social impacts both in Canada and in the EU, namely improved collaboration in research through facilitation of mobility for scholars and innovators. Furthermore, the world is at a juncture where some nations are reducing their commitment to address global challenges, including climate change, migration, development and security. This places increased responsibility on countries that share similar scientific cultures to provide guidance in addressing these challenges. Now, more than ever, Canada and the EU have the opportunity to step up and renew their role as scientific leaders, which is why it is crucial to make sure that this partnership becomes more effective.
As European researchers based in Canada involved in EU-funded projects for the past years, we have been first-hand beneficiaries and observers of this joint scientific enterprise. This has allowed us to detect inefficiencies that could ultimately compromise the quality of collaborative endeavours between Canada and the EU. We highlight some of these issues here and propose ways to resolve them:
Researcher mobility and international collaboration are core values of the scientific enterprise in Europe that are very much impregnated in the minds of European researchers, as they are indicators of scientific maturity. For example, ample possibilities for exchange exist at the student level (e.g. through the Erasmus program) and at the researcher level between academic institutions, supported by funding provided by member-state governments, EU institutions, as well as non-state private entities and other foundations. This mobility is an incredibly valuable feature of any scientist’s career that will ensure that professionals can provide the most holistic and relevant scientific contributions with worldwide application. However, while mobility of research talent starts to be promoted at a young age in Europe, our experience of living and working in Canada has shown us that Canadians are much more immobile, as these values do not seem to be as instilled here as they are in Europe. This could be due to the fact that they are not rewarded as heavily in the Canadian academic environment as they are in Europe, and/or because the decentralized funding system in Canada (with the exception of agencies like NSERC and SSHRC) dissuades Canadian scholars from establishing international collaborations more frequently. This poses a problem in that international partnerships, at least in some research fields, become rather unilateral and depend on the inclination of individual academic institutions to scout for synergies in the international sphere. However, there are some initiatives between Europe and Canada that promote mobility across different scientific environments (such as the Canadian Banting Fellowships, European Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions and European Research Council grants). The solution is to promote these mobility programs better and provide the necessary support (infrastructure and human resources) to aid in the access to funding opportunities. A more structural shift is also required to better align the criteria used to evaluate researchers between Canada and Europe, so that both mobility and international collaborations have the same leverage on both sides of the Atlantic.
One of the main barriers to effective international collaboration is the lack of adequate infrastructure and resources that provide guidance to the panoply of funding schemes currently available to scientists in Canada and Europe. For example, despite the invaluable institutional support provided by the ERA-Can+ project partners, most of the practical support in Canada is provided by only a handful of people with limited budgets. This compromises the organization of more far-reaching events that can promote networking, give visibility to the funding opportunities available and help researchers navigate through administrative requirements. Most Canadian universities have no or only little experience with the European funding landscape, EU projects and how Canada-based researchers and students can benefit and profit from collaboration with Europe. Additionally, Canada-based researchers participating in EU projects as collaborators (e.g. in Horizon 2020 projects) are not able to benefit from them to the fullest extent, since, on one hand, the EU very rarely funds Canada-based collaborators in these projects, and, conversely, Canada has no co-funding structures currently in place that allow for these researchers to act as equal partners in EU projects. Therefore, expanding both the EURAXESS North America network (already in place and financed by the European Commission) and the number of National and Regional contact points for individual programs, in addition to making serious investments to create satellite structures in Canada that can provide local support to prospect collaborators in EU projects, and creating the necessary co-funding structures that can support Canada’s inversion of capital in international scientific projects, are essential to mitigate this problem.
Another challenge lies in how to turn differences in research philosophies, scales and priorities between the two continents into strengths and catalysers of positive change rather than drivers of conflict. For example, renewable and clean energy are at different stages of development in Canada and Europe, which means that there are different levels of public awareness and discussion about these issues. Conversely, long-term species monitoring is much more widespread in Canada than in most of Europe and this has obviously implications in terms of the transferability of solutions to address threats to biodiversity from one continent to the other. The key is to not let these differences prevent us from focusing on similarities and common interests. For example, there are several funding mechanisms promoting bottom-up partnerships between Canadian and European institutions (private, non-profit and public) to collaboratively try to come up with innovative solutions to long-lasting problems.
There are multiple benefits to strengthening the scientific ties between Canada and Europe, perhaps the main one is to accelerate the finding of solutions to global issues through critical dialogue between two economic powers that share similar scientific values and the same willingness to address challenges through science and technology. These dialogues are particularly important to promote not only exchange of ideas and philosophies, but also of empirical data and modelling tools that will allow us to revert current environmental and humanitarian crises. There are already great reflections of this collaboration at the global scale, like transatlantic research alliances for Marine and Arctic research, but we need to make sure that we quickly multiply these initiatives across other subject areas.