Learning objectives:

  • understand the course objectives
  • plan the student’s work for the term
  • confirm access to readings and course notes
  • Practice 60s, 60c, and 5R techniques for evaluation
  • Consider the credibility and utility of online sources and means to evaluate them

Introduction to POE234 2015 – Science, Technology and Public Policy

Introductory provocation

Let’s start with this opinion-editorial piece:
Daryl Copeland, “Will Canada be the country that dumbed itself to death?” iPolitics.ca, 31 Aug 2015.

Some questions to consider:

  • Who is Copeland? Is he an authority on the subject?
  • What is the site iPolitics? Is it sponsored, biased, impartial?
  • The links in the article serve as footnotes.  What are Copeland’s sources? Are they substantial and convincing, or superficial and biased?
  • If you were writing a brief for a Director General or Associate Deputy Minister (i.e. a senior government official) would this influence you? How? Why or why not?

Now pull back and think about the context of the federal election. In the current federal election we can describe different approaches by political parties to the central issues that concern us in this course:

  • how the economy works,
  • the role of government in the economy,
  • public policies to make the economy work better, and
  • the role of public policy in science and technology to support growth and equity

For each of the three main parties (and for Greens and the Bloc if you wish) consider their positions on each of these questions. What primary sources would you use to examine this question?  What sources influence your initial “gut reaction” to the question?  How did you react to the Daryl Copeland opinion piece, and what information influenced that reaction?

We will return to this in the evaluation seminar.

Required reading

Smardon (2014) Introduction

Overview of the course

This course is about the links between science, technology, growth, and social well-being.  Government actions and policies play an important role in supporting science and developing technology, and in linking the application of science and technology to economic growth, sustainable development, and equitable distribution of fruits of development and change.  Whether this is done through direct intervention, through resort to markets, or through combinations of incentives, spending, taxation, and direct action has an impact on individual and national well-being, and even on human and national security – perhaps even on international security. We are interested in these linkages.

The first part of the course (weeks 1 to 5) challenges students to assemble the tools that will allow them to understand science, technology, and public policy as an interactive system.  We’ll do this through two axes of advance:

  • first, by studying the evolution of Canadian science and technology policy from 1960 to the present, drawing on Smardon (2014)
  • second, by assembling concepts and frameworks into a multi-disciplinary toolkit and checklist for evaluating complicated science and technology policy questions.

Our toolkit might draw on public administration and political philosophy (ideologies) from political science, on systems thinking, on environmental studies, on class analysis from sociology, on cost-benefit analysis from economics, on feminism and critical discourse analysis to understand work differentiation, and the list could go on. How will we decide what approaches are most useful to understand the questions that concern us?  How do we think different kinds of politicians and public figures understand the world and make decisions about it?

In week 5 students will conclude this part of the course by summarizing their individual considerations for technology and policy questions as a personalized checklist.  This might emphasize environmental concerns, market efficiency considerations, national security implications, or any combination of other factors, but should represent a coherent and rational basis for policy analysis, which at least one significant political party would be likely to acknowledge.

In each of the ensuing seven weeks, the class will address a specific policy issue, in order to answer one or more questions related to science and technology policy. Note that there is room for some flexibility on this list of topics, and students might want to shift the focus based on outside reading.

Introduction to text and readings

We will approach the Smardon text as a background theme to the course, like a bass drum in the background.  The drumbeat tells us that Canadian government policies haven’t been effective. To understand this theme, we will begin with the overview in Smardon’s introduction. We’ll cover Smardon Part I (Early Fordism to neo-liberal restructuring) during weeks 2-5, and Part II (Diefenbaker to Chretien) in weeks 6-13, as the background to the specific themes that we will address.

Note that Smardon is covering the same chronological ground three times, from different perspectives. First, in the introduction and again in the conclusion, he provides the whole narrative.  This is the most important part to understand in the first week of the course.  Second, in Part I, he is focused on the general problem of dependent technological development – Canada as a branch-plant economy.

Finally, in Part II, he revisits the same chronology from the perspective of Canadian policy attempting to deal with the frustrations of the branch-plant economy in an increasingly global economy in a networked world.  The consistent thread running through Canadian policy has been the Glassco Commission framework: government may pay for some science but moving it to profitable implementation is left to the private sector, mobilized by tax incentives and sometimes direct grants. Ultimately, this has been ineffective because the private sector responds to political economy beyond Canada’s borders, and Smardon points out repeatedly that Canada has done nothing to address structural barriers to innovation and development.

I want to point out a few additional books that have influenced the way I think about science, technology and public policy (full references are in the course bibliography, lined to the outline).  You’ll pick up a general pattern in these references, and my bias should be evident although they are not all on the same side of a political spectrum. You’re not obliged to agree with me.

  • Linda Weiss, America, Inc? Innovation and Enterprise in the National Security State, demonstrates that America is exceptional, and part of the reason that Canada has been constrained to dependent development since the 1960s relates to the way in which the American government sustains and supports innovation in the interests of its national security. Some Canadian innovation has been directly related to this, but so have constraints on Canadian national development and autonmy, that go back as far as the Defence Production Sharing arrangement of 1940.

  • Philip Mirowski is an economic historian, surprised that the financial crisis of 2008 did not produce the rethink of economic theory that resulted from the last comparable meltdown in 1929.  Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste is a scholarly book that finds the explanation in a neo-liberal thought collective like a Russian doll, with layers of defensive and offensive intellectual output, deeply complicit links between neo-liberal think tanks, government regulators in the US, and the mainstream economics profession.  It is unsettling because it calls into question the things we think we know about how the world of universities, banks, governments, and financial regulators work.  It also casts interesting light on the worlds described by Linda Weiss in America, Inc? and by Philip Howard in Pax Technica. I like a book that makes me wonder if I understand what I thought I knew.
  • Mazzucato’s The Entrepreneurial State is a timely book that debunks the neoliberal myth that only the private sector creates jobs and growth. In fact, Mazzucato argues, it is the state that takes risks and develops major new technologies.  Only the state can create innovation systems in the public interest.  The private sector consistently hedges and resists innovation, sits on cash (yes, this is CCPA, but see Mirowski for why it may be more reliable than the Fraser Institute).
  • Loxley, Public Service, Private Profit explores the mechanics of public-private partnerships in Canada, and explains why they usually cost the public more, and benefit the private sector more than purely public infrastructure developments.
  • If Mirowski, Mazzucato, and Loxley might be described as sceptics about the magic of markets, there is a large group of scholars who are unabashed market-enthusiasts. Deaton, The Great Escape, describes a better world as a result of market competition, and descries aid and trade intervention, much as does Dambisa Moyo, Dead Aid.  Acemoglu and Robinson, Why Nations Fail, are similarly bullish on the benefits of unfettered markets and the right to control the fruit of one’s labours rather than have it expropriated. Market enthusiasm fuels the resistance to state intervention which Weiss and Mazzucato see as central to the greatest technological advances of the 20th century. Is self-interest involved in the accounts of market enthusiasts, as Mirowski suggests?

  • Many books address the impact of robotic technology and other innovations on the future of warfare, but three worth considering are Kunstler, Too much magic, Wittes the Future of Violence, and Ford, Rise of the Robots. A bit like the latest Robocop movie, a subtext or theme in these accounts is the danger of corporate control of technology that threatens to challenge the state monopoly of violence.
  • Dartnell How to Rebuild Civilization is a fascinating look at the technology necessary to recover from massive depopulation or destruction of knowledge, and a useful way of thinking through the pieces that make up our interconnected modern world: metalurgy, textiles, construction, communications, and so on.  How little we know about how to make the pieces that make up the modern world!
  • Howard’s Pax Technica about the internet of things goes forwards rather than back, and suggests contradictory outcomes for new applications of networked technology – it could go either way, and public policy (especially regulation and privacy) will have a major role in determining which outcome is more likely.


Participation evaluation for week 1 Introduction will consist of:

  • 60s: Now we’ll practice the 60 second summary based on this exercise.  What have you learned?
  • 60c: Next we’ll practice the 60 second critique based on this exercise. Pick one of your classmates – did they convince you that they have learned what what they claim? What (else) should they have learned.
  • 5R: Next we will practice the 5 minute consensus report. What topical issues should be addressed in this course? Discuss for 5 minutes. Present the results in 60s. There is an opportunity for a minority report as a 60c.

Questions and discussion


Repeat 60s, 2x60c, 5R

Discuss other readings and general interests, start on concepts