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Opening Up to Canada's Innovation Potential

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Last month's Speech from the Throne committed to “support Canadian researchers and innovators in developing new ideas and bringing them to the marketplace through Canada's Science and Technology Strategy.” While prioritizing innovation and research is welcome news, politicians and policy makers must recognize that maximizing the value of Canada's investment in research requires far more than tax breaks and improved accountability mechanisms.  Instead, Ottawa should rethink how publicly-funded scientific data and research results flow into the hands of researchers, businesses, and individuals.

This 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.

The government has already taken some important steps in this direction.  Earlier this year, 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 should pressure the three federal research granting institutions to emphasize their role in unlocking innovation by building 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), there is an exceptional opportunity to develop a public-private research partnership grounded in open access that yields significant new innovation opportunities.

CIHR has assumed the Canadian lead on this issue.  The agency, which already makes clinical trial data available, recently unveiled a new policy that will require grant recipients to make every effort to ensure that all publications are freely accessible through the publisher's website or an online repository within six months of publication starting in 2008.  The online repository approach - often referred to as "self-archiving" - relies on smart search engines to index millions of articles and make them easily accessible with the right search query.

The policy will help ensure that five percent of the world's health research scholarship - tens of thousands of articles (CIHR funds approximately 5,000 researchers annually producing as many as 30,000 articles) - are generally freely available.  This benefits the researchers, whose work becomes more widely read and cross-referenced, as well as commercial innovation and the general public.

By contrast, to date the SSHRC has only launched a small open access pilot project after opposition from publishers such as the University of Toronto Press short-circuited bolder plans. NSERC has proven even more apathetic, as internal documents reveal that Council personnel admit that open access is not a priority.

Without quick action, Canada is in danger of falling well behind its counterparts in the United States and Europe where a growing number of funding agencies are moving toward a mandatory requirement to make research publicly-available.  These include the National Institutes of Health in the U.S., the Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom, and the Australian Research Council.  Indeed, late last month the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved a strong open access mandate for its national health research program.

Canadians and Canadian researchers deserve better.  A strong innovation strategy that propels Canada to a global leadership position in science and technology should include an unequivocal 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 or online at