14 June 2012

Drawers of ideas and the privilege of the a priori

The Public Policy Forum today hosted a Leadership Roundtable on Canada's Global Science, Technology and Innovation Priorities, sponsored by DFAIT, which I was fortunate to attend. The discussion was excellent and focused on how Canada can better position itself internationally to enable soft landings - both outbound and in coming - for Canadian business to realize international markets as well as to link international businesses to Canadian contexts, linking to our world-leading S&T capacity. This capacity is reflected in our leading university research facilities, our college and  polytechnic applied research capacity, and the conjoint post-secondary training ground that makes us the world leader in producing highly qualified and skilled personnel (i.e. graduates) for the innovation economy.

Greater integration of our capabilities as a country will enable us to better sell Canada as an investment destination. This is the notion of complementarity and the need to better connect the academic enterprise with industry. We can call this P3RD - the public+private partnership model for R&D. In my last post on this, P3RD: Public Private Partnerships in Research and Development, I outlined the notion of what in my title today I refer to as the privilege of the a priori:
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.
In this sense Canada is also a drawer of ideas - we come up with good ideas but leave it to others to commercialize. Ideas are just another basic resource that we draw from the land and export without adding value.

[Aside]I am reminded of the Roman poet Horace who, among other  things, said that the poet should put a poem away in a drawer for nine years before bringing it back to see if it is still good. Perhaps we have been too focused on the idea of putting things away (in publications) - drawing ideas, putting them away in drawers.You get the idea. Another thing Horace said is instructive to our discussion about instrumentality: "Mix pleasure and profit, and you are safe." This relates well to the need to mix the academic and industry communities - where applicable - for Canadian productivity and innovation capacity. [/Aside]

The timing of this roundtable was excellent, particularly given the OECD's release yesterday of Canada's country report. The report says that "Canada needs to boost innovation and human capital to sustain living standards," and offers more fodder to the need for Canada to increase our innovation quotient. The Economic Survey of Canada 2012 makes many good points relating to Canada's innovation capacity and economic growth, including the advice that "Greater integration of technical, business, communications and industry training within tertiary programmes could contribute to innovation and improving graduate skills." This integration exemplifies the notion of people centred innovation, and is what George Brown College and other colleges and polytechnics are doing with regards to the integration of applied research in course curricula. This leads to students acquiring innovation literacy skills that are our hedge against future innovation capacity and potential for the economy. The OECD's Canada report and the idea of better integration of these components coincides with the recent launch of the OECD Skills Strategy. This is a good resource for anyone with an interest in innovation.

All told, the roundtable ended on a very optimistic note. Canada is in a much better place now than it was five years ago with respect to the capacity we have to leverage our basic and applied R&D capacity. We are much better now at linking with industry for common goals. And we have a much more refined sense of the innovation ecosystem and the complementary roles universities, colleges and industry play in improving Canada's innovation and productivity.

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