25 May 2009

"...the unfinished business of the innovation agenda"

An article today about the Congress for Social Scientists outlines argues for more funding for social sciences research. Chad Gaffield, president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, calls this "...the unfinished business of the innovation agenda." Certainly we need to acknowledge the need to fund and foster creativity within our innovation agenda.

Recently I wrote an update to my post on Canada's Science, Technology and Innovation Council report on the state of innovation in Canada. It is relevant to the discussion on research funding:

The Innovation Equation: The Role of Research in Canada

Canada's Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC) recently released its report on the state of innovation in Canada. State of the Nation 2008 offers benchmarking data on how we fare at innovation, science and technology. Other assessments, such as our "D for Innovation" from the Conference Board of Canada, suggest we are mediocre at best. The STIC report was released amid much talk about the funding of basic research, the setting of national research priorities, and the role of applied research. Pundits have weighed in on both sides of the innovation equation: funding basic, curiosity-driven research versus applied research, innovation and commercialization. While the former is a necessary part of any healthy academic ecosystem, we ignore the latter at our national peril.

Some have decried the lack of funding for basic research, particularly as compared to US President Obama’s recent announcement of a 3% GDP allocation to basic science research. This is a laudable goal, but ignored in our debate is the fact that Canada is second only to Sweden among OECD countries in per capita investment in higher education expenditures on research and development. We rank lower—12th in the world—when it comes to business expenditure in research and development. Fixing this imbalance and encouraging more private R&D investment is seen by many as the path to increased productivity. This context, overlooked by those seeking more funding for basic research only, is why it is important for Canada to set national research priorities and direct funding accordingly. Investing in Canada`s applied research will enhance our overall social and economic productivity.

The STIC report calls for greater collaboration between colleges, universities and businesses. Colleges offer industry-facing applied research capabilities that fill gaps in Canada`s R&D pipelines. Our focus on applied research, innovation and commercialization supports industry problem-solving in ways that are complementary to established, discovery-based research institutions. This is a strength, and a necessary facet of the R&D continuum. Supporting College applied research capacity is part of the federal Science and Technology Strategy (through the College and Community Innovation Program) and the Ontario Innovation Agenda.

The Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation’s Colleges Ontario Network for Industry Innovation funds industry problem-solving using College resources, students and faculty. By directly involving our students in industry-focused applied research we promote innovation literacy, producing graduates who have research, problem solving, leadership and entrepreneurship skills, and the ability to recognize innovation in the product development lifecycle. This is in addition to the job-ready skills our graduates already possess. College graduates are vital to the national economy. Canada ranks first in the OECD attainment of tertiary education only when College education is factored in.

The college applied research system is well positioned to play a lead role in strengthening national and regional capacity to innovate, working with research centres and industry partners to enhance competitiveness in the sectors we serve. Firms in Canada are not yet making effective use of the postsecondary research facilities we currently have, but this is changing. College applied research centres offer complementary capacity for R&D that enables industry to make more effective use of publicly funded research facilities. We offer services to industry that are not currently widely available in Canada – the applied research, commercialization-focused “last mile” services that industry needs in order to test market practicality assumptions. Broadening the potential outputs for R&D in a given area by supporting applied research will foster increased productivity, enabling Canada to realign R&D expenditure imbalances, and correct our long-standing poor record on innovation.

Should all research be directed toward a commercial outcome? No. Nor should commercialization become our only yardstick for measuring return on investment of tax dollars. Instead, call this a return on innovation. Funding for both basic and applied research that leads to innovation and commercialization is key to improving community economic and social development. We must certainly maintain and improve our commitment to funding basic research, but we must also see the very real benefits that will come from funding applied research and the commercialization of innovations. Canada has historically been good at invention, but less effective at exploiting innovations for social gain. This has to change. The STIC report is yet another wake-up call.

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