Innovating to Bolster Canadian Scientific Research in French

Research and innovation

By Sylvain Charbonneau and Martine Lagacé

Vice-President, Research and Innovation and Associate Vice-President, Research Promotion and Development, Office of the Vice-President, Research and Innovation (OVPRI)

Sylvain Charbonneau and Martine Lagacé
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The evidence of rapid climate change over the past few decades is urgently compelling us to rethink our relationship with our own environment. We know that the actions we must take are numerous and complex. But among these actions, the need for human communities to preserve and defend the diversity of our natural spaces is central to the strategies recommended. The situation finds its parallel in the scientific community. To innovate and adapt to new challenges, societies must also act to preserve and defend the diversity of their intellectual and scientific spaces.

Note: This op-ed was published during the Canadian Science Policy Centre 2023 Conference

An added value for Canada

With this goal in mind, the presence of a French-language scientific community within Canada’s research ecosystem must be considered a major asset, and we must act to preserve the added value generated by this diversity. Scientific research in French is rooted in a secular tradition and maintains a network of solid and sustainable international partnerships, a variety of research methodologies and topics, and a host of dynamic research agencies and university organizations. At the heart of this diversity is the Francophonie and its institutions. These include the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), which to date comprises some 88 countries and governments worldwide, as well as the Francophone University Agency (AUF), which boasts significant membership in 120 countries and 1000 teaching and research institutions, of which 33 are found in eight provinces in Canada. The 321 million Francophones around the globe, including the 10 million who live in Canada, comprise a very important, dynamic and diverse population whose members can and must be trained and kept informed in their mother tongue or day-to-day language to properly understand the science behind the issues they face. And more than ever, these are challenging issues: climate change, health care, food and agriculture, urban development, migration, education, energy, and many more.

A threat to scientific diversity

If we consider science conducted in French as simply a language issue, we place the entire ecosystem of Francophone science in a narrow structure of subordination or dependency. Take health care for example: language is recognized as one of the social determinants of health. As such, today we must systematically take language into account when conducting research to reduce health inequalities that particularly affect certain groups within Francophone communities, namely the elderly and those living in distant rural areas. In fact, although science is published mainly in English, the social, cultural and technological transformations that ensue affect populations and communities that are very largely non-Anglophone.

While fewer Canadians speak French than English, scientific research in French cannot be reduced to a numbers game and thus relegated to minority status: this would be consistent with considering all the non-anglophone scientific ecosystems in the world as inferior and only worthy of secondary policies. The risk is that we dangerously restrict the diversity of our intellectual spaces and thus permanently cripple our ability to debate, create and account for differences in our public policies. Fortunately, our national tradition is not currently moving in this direction.

Pursuing education and maintaining a competitive, high-quality research environment are public goals that align with the development of a more inclusive society, both in Canada and internationally. Even so, scientific research in French is not doing as well as it should, given its importance. Several recent reports point to the many obstacles faced by Francophone researchers, Francophone research institutes and centres, and Francophone and bilingual universities across the country. (Acfas 2021, Standing Committee on Science and Research, summary reports from the ACUFC and FCFA general assemblies) These reports and studies have been widely publicized, especially by Francophone media outlets. To date, we are still awaiting the powerful specific measures stemming from the many relevant recommendations contained in these different reports to correct the structural imbalances that handicap science in French.

Taking a stand in favour of science in French first means learning about and acknowledging all the key actors and institutions that play a role in producing scientific knowledge: the users of this knowledge, namely the Francophone communities and the groups that represent them, the training and research institutions, the researchers, the research centres and institutes, the organizations that support such research, the funding agencies (federal and provincial), the publishers and others who diffuse knowledge in all its forms (scientific journals, media, cultural organizations). All these stakeholders contribute to the vitality and sustainability of science in French in Canada. However, all of them are currently facing significant challenges that in some cases threaten their very existence (Franco-Ontarian universities, for example).

A national strategy to bolster scientific research in French

Every stage involved in producing science in French is under threat, and unless we take concerted, concrete action, scientific research in French will be dangerously compromised. The time for reviews and recommendations is over. The diagnosis has been clearly established and the solutions have been widely discussed, evaluated and approved by the Francophone scientific community. Unless we implement a genuinely national strategy to safeguard research in French, one that mobilizes all stakeholders, a vital part of Canada’s scientific heritage will be lost, Canada’s scientific culture will be diminished, and Canada’s scientific reach will be reduced. A national strategy would prioritize better coordination of the initiatives and stakeholders that today bring vibrancy to research in French. Canada’s research community can collectively draw the outlines of an ambitious roadmap with the support of the funding agencies and of the federal and provincial departments responsible for research and postsecondary education. If we fail to adopt a genuine strategy to bolster scientific research in French, Canada will lose opportunities for major partnerships in the fiercely competitive fight for the knowledge economy and in the race for innovation and economic development. The importance of science diplomacy today reminds us that science plays a key role in international relations and in the security of our communities.