12 April 2012

P3RD: Public Private Partnerships in Research and Development

The Globe and Mail's James Bradshaw yesterday put out a piece on Public Private Partnerships in Research and Development, or P3RDIBM teams with Ontario universities as part of federal innovation push heralds a good development in linking public and private sector R&D, as per my earlier comments on the recent budget. Canada needs to foster more of this. The fear that the shorter time horizons of industry R&D will deleteriously affect academic research is a red herring.

The privileging of basic research over applied research in Canada - of the theoretical over the practical or commercialization aspects of R&D - can be read as a symptom of our collective historical identity as "hewers of wood and drawers of water". Basic research sans commercialization is just one more example of how Canada exports raw commodities (ideas) without adding value (commercialization of these ideas). To move past raw commodity exports and adding value through product design is key to Canada's future productivity, and P3RD - which the recent budget explicitly promotes - is a positive path to follow in this regard.

Of course we must always be careful to ensure that academic freedom is protected - this is s staple of the academic enterprise. But Canadians in general must become more amenable to commercialization if we are to fix our long ailing productivity and innovation problems. Jim Balsillie's op-ed on this topic is interesting, and the story of the York-CIGI experience is instructive. A balance must be sought in the exploration of P3RD, particularly when Canada, even though we rank among the highest HERD spenders, does not have the GDP to support R&D in any and all disciplines. That is, we need to prioritize and play to our strengths.

Playing to our strengths means focusing our public R&D on the production of ideas and talent that can then be taken up by industry. A report out today by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards points out what Polytechnics CEO Nobina Robinson has said: companies commercialize; people innovate. As the Globe's review puts it, Competition needed to drive innovation, report says. The report is out today, and looks to be required reading on the topic of public-private partnerships in R&D.

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