Laboratories Canada Initiative
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The Laboratories Canada Strategy (LCS) is a multi-year phased initiative for building and restoring federal science and technology (S&T) capacity in the GC. Previously named the Federal Science and Technology Infrastructure Initiative, the core basis of Labs Canada was announced in the 2018 federal "science budget" which allocated an initial $2.8 billion to the initiative over a 5 year period. This initial allocation to Labs Canada was envisioned as the first part of a roughly 20-year initiative to rebuild and modernize federal laboratory capacity.
Much of the GC's federal scientific infrastructure was build decades ago and has received scarce attention and investment since its initial construction. This has resulted in a federal laboratory system which is in need of serious renewal. As early as 2007, experts have alerted the government of an impending "rust out" of federal labs, with poor infrastructure and equipment impedes federal S&T from effectively conducting its important work to the point of core S&T capacities no longer being functional. There were several predecessor initiatives seeking to address the impending "rust out" including most notably the 2018 Federal Science and Technology Infrastructure Initiative (FSTII), as well as others before this which proved unable to gain traction. In late 2019, FSTII was rebranded and revisioned as the Laboratories Canada Initiative or simply "Labs Canada".
With over 200 labs in the federal system, a large proportion of which being in a critical condition of disrepair, Labs Canada is faced with a huge undertaking in its mission to renew federal S&T infrastructure. This includes most immediately the matter of prioritizing the labs which will face revitalization, and in which order revitalization efforts will take place. The massive backlog of infrastructure investment also raises the issue of limited funding as the number of facilities needing attention vastly exceeds initial budgetary allocations. As a result, Labs Canada operates on the principle of funding S&T renewal according to the best use cases for the funding, which are assessed in large method by how they will assist in developing of synergies in infrastructure and capacity between multiple labs. There is much federal S&T infrastructure that is under-utilized, or at least utilized well below its potential capacity because of rigid organizational silos in federal science which impede effective collaboration and infrastructure sharing. As such, labs which are able to demonstrate their ability to leverage collaborative networks with other federal labs and external partners alike to improve utilization rates and contributes to the overall innovation ecosystem, are given priority.
Much background work had been conducted prior to official the launch of FSTII/LCI in 2018 which informs the work and guiding principles of Labs Canada today. Two noteworthy initiatives which influence Labs Canada's direction include the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, Manitoba and the Atlantic Science Entreprise Centre (ASEC) in Moncton, New Brunswick.
The NML was built well in advance of the launch of Labs Canada but embodies many of the desired principles that are now at play for the Labs Canada renewal drive. The NML operates as an intermural and interdepartmental research facility that shares infrastructure where possible and successfully bridges partnerships in the wider S&T community. By adopting this approach, NML was able to punch above its weight in its infrastructure renewal. This includes for instance, being able to procure cutting-edge new facilities and equipment in excess of what might have otherwise been possible in a siloed approach, where each of the component organizational units of NML would have bought infrastructure according to departmental needs alone. By finding synergies and clustering capacities between these organizational units, NML was empowered to procure and deploy more advanced technology in its work than would have otherwise been possible.
The renewed ASEC is currently (2020) under construction and merges the physical and scientific infrastructure of existing Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) regional labs in Moncton. In addition to effectively clustering capacities of both departmental labs, ASEC was remarkable for its success in partnering with other entities beyond these two SBDAs, including educational institutions like Ingenium and locally-based researchers in other sectors. The governance and planning of this project was well underway in advance of the announcement of FSTII and yet embodied many of the guiding principles which formed the basis for the Labs Canada initiative. As such, Labs Canada became involved in a supporting role for ASEC's organizational governance, using the opportunity to support the new laboratory construction at ASEC and to build its own capacity as a project management office. In some circles, ASEC is viewed as a sort of "Phase 0" for Labs Canada, preceding the official launch of new Labs Canada laboratory builds, while still being closely intertwined with Labs Canada's early work.
Phase 1 was established by taking in to account the most dire S&T infrastructure needs, the greatest opportunities for clustering capacities and the early guiding principle that existing labs should not be removed from the wider region in which they operate. On that basis and after careful evaluation, Labs Canada opted to launch the first phase of its work centred around the National Capital Region. This first phase of Labs Canada has been underway since 2019 and involves the extensive task of talking stock of all existing infrastructure and security requirements, identifying and exploring potential clusterization opportunities and mapping out future S&T needs in accordance with departmental plans. Phase 1 initially generated a series of 5 (source) distinct clusters of S&T infrastructure capacities that would be grouped together in NCR lab rebuilds.
Phase 2 and Beyond
The substance of Phase 2, and which labs will be eligible for participation in this phase, has been the subject of much speculation. Ultimately with Phase 1 still underway, official announcements have yet to be made about the nature and participants of Phase 2. Phase 2 is currently funded under the initial budgetary allocation set aside in 2018 but questions remain about the amount of funding that will remain after the completion of Phase 1. Given the magnitude of the Labs Canada renewal, subsequent phases will also depend on future budgetary allocations, a result of the design of Labs Canada from the early outset. The initial funding for Labs Canada was set aside for the first 5-years of the renewal program which will bring it to the end of 2023, after which point the initiative will receive more direction from the political level in the form of a federal budget allocation.
Labs Canada is housed at Public Works and Procurement Canada (PSPC) and operates within its organizational structure, specifically under the Science and Parliamentary Infrastructure Branch. Although the initiative is most closely connected to Science-Based Departments and Agencies (SBDAs), due to the extensive real-property component of the initiative it falls under PSPC's mandate. While closely involved in the real property itself, Labs Canada allows the federal scientific community and SBDAs to take the lead on clusterization of capacities among themselves, including which labs and departments will be partnering and in which capacity. This included the heavy involvement of DMSC as a convener and coordinator in early stages. Labs Canada also has a group of consultants from the scientific and governance communities which assist in convening SBDAs, establishing synergies and developing clusters. With that being said, much of the initiative for the development of clusters comes from the labs and SBDAs themselves, with those closest to the ground having the most in-depth knowledge of where prospective clusters might be, and how best they could be realized.
The guiding principles of eligibility for Labs Canada funding give extensive consideration to leading scientific practices such as open science, as well as breaking down silos between SBDAs, other levels of government, academic institutions and industry. Proposals which outline directly and tangibly how they will empower the wider Canadian innovation ecosystem and support research commercialization are viewed favourably. With federal labs suffering from low utilization rates of scientific equipment due to poor governance and severe limitations on access outside of the immediate time, clusters which are able to resolve this through operational efficiencies and partnerships to achieve usage rates comparable with those in private industry and well-regarded.