01 November 2011

Investments in research, education and the "dividend of innovation"

There has been a lot of press recently about the state of undergraduate education. A recent article by HEQCO’s Harvey Weingarten on measuring skills attainment and educational efficacy offers timely  input on the issues of growth in demand and quality. The point here is that we need a more focused approach to measuring outputs from the education system in order to ensure we can continue to produce the workforce and citizens the country needs. To avoid this is to side step responsibility for ensuring our future economy can be more innovative and productive. We can look at this as a combination of lagging and leading indicators, and the discussion is also relevant to research.

For example, in today's Globe editorial, there is a brief piece on the role of basic research and its relationship to an unspecified future of serendipitous discovery. While the Globe goes for a soft target to set up its argument, the distinction between basic and targeted - or applied - research is a false dichotomy. The issue here is when the research gets applied. Awards such as the Gairdner and the Nobel prize are important indicators of excellence in science and discovery. These are lagging indicators, as they appear many years after the fact, providing strong evidence of the time lag relationship between basic to applied research. A leading indicator may be the propensity of a funding body to invest in a particular area - whether basic or applied - and the variable response to present conditions in the economy or culture that is producing a need for innovation in the first place. For the latter, any example of R&D into internet technologies - whether for healthcare or consumer demand - is an example. TO think of these two aspects of R&D as polar opposites is counter-productive, yet seductive, especially in a country with a GDP the size of Canada's. For even though we spend more per capita on R&D than most every other country in the OECD, our focus on lagging indicators only betrays a provincialism that is, according to many, responsible for our continued poor productivity and innovation performance.

Kevin Lynch, in an editorial today, makes this point well. Lynch focuses on the need for greater innovation in government, using online media and procurement methods to foster greater Canadian innovation. His point is that we can have austerity and stimulus at the same time if we think differently about the issues at hand. Namely: innovation. In an earlier piece, which I reviewed previously, Lynch and Munir Sheikh discuss their view that "Productivity growth is the dividend produced by innovation." I would add this to the discussion about education and the stimulus of innovation writ large (through targeted investments in R&D, whether basic or applied). That is, our investment in education, and in modernizing our approach to education with a focus on outcomes, enables us to produce a society with relevant skills and resiliency. This resiliency is the ability to transcend opposition thinking, and to apply innovation to issues as Lynch describes. Doing so enables a focus on the complementary ways in which education and innovation can work with the foundations of our excellent basic research infrastructure and to apply what we know and learn into the complex issues and problems facing society today.

The BBC's The Story of Science is perhaps one of the best things I've ever seen on this issue.

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