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Canada gets people and values together

'It's all about people' is one of the main themes that repeatedly surfaces among the Canadian research community. As probably the world's 'biggest small country' (having a land mass that dwarfs the EU but with a population smaller than Spain's), Canada has had to make sure tha...

'It's all about people' is one of the main themes that repeatedly surfaces among the Canadian research community. As probably the world's 'biggest small country' (having a land mass that dwarfs the EU but with a population smaller than Spain's), Canada has had to make sure that it makes the most of what it has, both in terms of people and resources. The contradictions in Canada's profile include not just its size in relation to its population, but also the distribution of its population. The country occupies a vast area, but climate and infrastructural factors mean that around 90 per cent of the population live within 100 km of the US border. So geographical considerations are inherent in policies, especially in research and development (R&D) where resources and human capital are restricted and clustered. Add to this a federal system which allows the country's 10 provincial governments a great deal of autonomy, the fact that there are two national languages and having the most powerful country in the world as its only neighbour, and the complexity of Canada's situation becomes clearer. But Canadians have taken to these challenges with the 'frontier spirit' that helped build the country. Determined to demonstrate that they are not just a 'rocks and logs' country, they have shown not just that they can work together, but also that they can do it in areas which have a significant impact on maintaining Canada's quality of life. 'We need to have critical mass that is in line with our geography and our population,' says Dr Alan Bernstein, President of the Canadian institutes of health research (CIHR). Although he is referring to R&D activity, he could be talking about almost any sector. Canada has been ruled by the Liberal party in federal government for around 10 years and liberal values figure high in the population's priorities. Wary of the healthcare system that operates south of their border in the USA, many Canadians have consistently highlighted the importance of a strong healthcare system available to all, regardless of wealth. This kind of common outlook has influenced the R&D priorities of the country, as well as the budgets available. 'Canadians care for health, it is almost a defining value. We are very aware of what is happening in the USA,' says Dr Bernstein. The Canadian approach to healthcare illustrates the Canadian method of bringing budget, people and priorities together. The CIHR that Dr Bernstein presides over is a recognition that research and development can dovetail with a country's values to produce benefits. It was established in June 2000 to bring together all health professionals, from the researchers to those who administer health services, from those building Canada's knowledge based society to those who target prevention strategies. Its C$480 million (310 million euro) budget has allowed it to expand beyond population health and it now carries out 'joined up' research that couples medical, scientific and socio-economic factors to help address the health issues faced by Canada. Bringing people together is the way to make progress. Apart from the need to work across disciplines, to sort out budgetary allocations and to smooth some egos of the academic high flyers, there is also the issue of getting everyone together in the same place at the same time. The CIHR has managed all of these, the final part being accomplished through the use of virtual institutes. This means that the researchers do not base meetings on use of buildings, but on application of knowledge. They are not time restricted, but subject related. And there is a lot of cross over that otherwise would not have happened. So another Canadian contradiction: the country has managed to get people together, but not always in the same place or time.