17 April 2008

"The Topography of Innovation"

University of Toronto president David Naylor has an interesting article in this month's UofT Magazine, called "The Topography of Innovation." In the article, Naylor addresses Canada's poor performance in the OECD ranking and the need for the federal granting councils to focus on funding basic research without having to worry about downstream economic and industrial benefits. While I disagree that the granting councils should be solely concerned with "upstream . . . knowledge generation" as he puts it, Naylor does rightly say that "we need dedicated commercialization agencies and infrastructure" that can turn work within the R&D landscape to ensure we can exploit Canadian research that has potential economic benefits.

College applied research centres can fill this role. While there is perhaps a false distinction between basic and applied research at times, there are complementary roles that each kind of institution (university+college) can play in the innovation spectrum. Colleges are relatively new to research, and universities have been worried that this is just more competition for scarce research funding. This is wrong thinking. If we can, as a nation, promote the notion of complementarity (the oft-cited collaborate to compete model), then we can see the university and college research labs as articulated within one long value chain aimed at creating new knowledge and applying this into industrial contexts. Such distributed research networks have the potential to lift Canada out of our innovation doldrums.

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