25 April 2012

Research, development and international innovation exchange

An article today by the Globe's James Bradshaw on the mission by the Governor General and Canadian university presidents reflects the growth of Brazil and good efforts by Canada to connect with this growing and prosperous nation. Brazil's ambitious Science without Borders initiative will enable top Brazilian students to tap Canada's world leading research and education capacity. It is also an opportunity to develop close ties to Brazilian markets for Canadian companies and innovation. Linking R&D to international innovation through "soft landings" in Brazilian (and other international) markets is one way we can help Canadian entrepreneurs succeed in the global market. The soft landing here refers to working with Brazilian colleges and universities and their technology transfer institutions to connect to local conditions and find valuable conditions for innovations to reach Brazil's markets. The Brazilian mission heralds a very positive step forward for Canada's science and technology enterprise. Polytechnics Canada CEO Nobina Robinson is joining the Governor General on the mission to Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago.

And speaking of our S&T capacity, the Globe's print version has an excellent special supplement on research and Development. It includes strong messages from the granting councils and many university presidents on the need to connect our S&T enterprise to business innovation. Earlier this week Timothy Caulfield opined about the value of basic research, decrying any focus on the application of research. In so doing he demonstrates the long held bias held by many researchers toward applied research. As a result, he overlooks the importance of innovation and commercialization. Canada is near the top of the OECD in public sector research, but near the bottom for industry research--a differential that contributes to our productivity problem. Our goal must be to realize the gains basic science creates rather than simply giving these away for others to sell back to us. Basic and applied sciences are equally necessary and fully complementary endeavours.

The sooner we connect these two solitudes the better our country will be. The Brazilian mission shows that a strong and healthy S&T system includes solid connections to training talent for R&D and industry innovation, and connecting to business innovation downstream of scientific discovery. To not do this is to abrogate our responsibility to the future. It bears repeating:

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.

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