Sunday, October 25, 2015

A new government and renewed hope for the Canadian space industry

The Canadian federal election is over. A Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau will make the decisions about what direction the Canadian space industry will take.

The new government must answer two questions: What do they want the space industry to be, and what role will the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) play?

The Liberals have promised a greater focus on science and technology, including space. More than a few people and organizations have expressed their views on what that focus should be, the most significant effort to date being the aerospace report led by David Emerson.

As noted in the Commercial Space Blog article Part 2: Abandoning the Emerson Aerospace Review?, the Emerson Report recommended that the commercial players should take a larger role and the CSA should more or less step aside.

This approach is getting plenty of support. A Globe and Mail article, Canada's space role hangs on political, industrial commitment, agrees, at least with the part about industry taking a bigger role. The authors of the article, Derek Burney, former Canadian ambassador to the United States, and Fen Osler Hampson, director of global security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and chancellor's professor at Carleton University, believe that the Emerson framework is the right one.

The 2014 Annual Report from the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (AIAC) (details on page 7-8, direct PDF download) backs Emerson and says a number of the recommendations are already being implemented.

Even Liberal MP Marc Garneau said in a CBC News article, Canada's space agency to take back seat to private sector, that the Emerson Report is a good framework, but only if the Conservative government of the day properly funds and implements it.

The unanswered question is, will the new Liberal government support this approach or take a different tack?

Mr. Garneau said in a CBC News article, Canada's space policy enters orbit of election campaign, that a Liberal government would boost spending on space. He didn’t say if they would continue with the Emerson recommendations. Also, keep in mind that Mr. Garneau isn’t the prime minister, so his comments can’t be taken as official policy.

We simply don’t know yet what the Liberals will do. They might go ahead with the Emerson recommendations. They might want something else, like a recent proposal from an organization that bills itself as the largest hi-tech association in Canada.

In a Globe and Mail article, Tech alliance pushes for federal innovation ministry, the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) said the government should replace Industry Canada with a ministry that puts science, technology and business innovation under a senior cabinet minister. The minister would have the resources to improve Canada’s private-sector research and development efforts. This ministry might be a logical place to put space.

And what about the Canadian Space Agency? What does the government want it to do? How will it fit in?

Between budget cuts and changing priorities based on political whims, the CSA has suffered from a case of Dissociative Identity Disorder. They’ve been relegated to the sidelines for the most part, an example being the funding announcements for space projects made by then Industry Minister James Moore before the election was called. The current CSA president, Sylvain Laporte, was nowhere to be seen, even though the money for the most part was coming from the CSA.

Having answers to these questions isn’t enough. One huge piece of the puzzle remains. The government has choices, but the choices are a collection of parts. It’s like having all of the supplies to build a house but no building plan. How does the government make it all work? Where’s the plan, specifically a 5- and 10-year space plan?

The Conservative government promised a space plan by 2014 but didn't deliver. The Liberals promised a long-term space plan as part of their election platform. None of the ideas under consideration will go anywhere without that plan.

The government needs to accomplish four goals:
  • Develop a 5- and 10-year space plan.
  • Pick a model for the space industry that fits the plan. It might be Emerson, it might be something else, but it must fit the plan.
  • Decide what the CSA’s role will be. A reduced role, a greater role, part of a new combined science and technology strategy, a stand-alone role?
  • Decide how much money it will take to make the plan work and provide it.
If the Liberals can get this right, Canada may finally be on its way back as a significant player in space.