04 April 2013

On zombies, and the continuing horror story of Canadian innovation

It reads like a post-apocalyptic horror story, only this isn't a B movie, it's a D. As in the Conference Board has once again given Canada a D rating for innovation. The only good news in this story is that last year we were 14th, and this year we are 13th in the world. If this story was released on a Friday it would fit the B movie plot perfectly.

As reported in the Globe and Mail today, R&D, innovation should be ‘on A list,’ Conference Board urges. The issue here is the long standing lag in business R&D performance. Even though we get an A for education, our ability to innovate - and to capitalize on the fact that we have the most educated work force on the planet - is seriously hampered by the trifecta of low business investment in R&D, skills training and investment in new technology.

Outgoing University of Toronto president David Naylor recently gave an Empire Club speech in which he decried the zombies of Canadian research. Saying we need more unfettered research, Naylor says that the "zombie idea" that "won't die" and is "hard to kill" is the focus on applied research. The idea, he says, "has infected some decision-makers," who presumably are now out eating the brains of scientists desperate to escape the slow stumble into research ruin. Professorial pundits lament the end to unfettered research funding, saying the rise of applied research in Canadian colleges and polytechnics represents an apocalyptic war that pits the forces of good (basic research) against the forces of evil (applied research, and dare I say, commerce). The reality show in all this is that Canada just does not have the GDP to support unfettered research into everything.

The atavistic yearning for a past research state that never really was represents a dangerous degeneration of Canadian innovation capacity and productivity. When we do not socialize our students - undergraduate and graduate alike from across the entire educational spectrum, college, polytechnic and university - we short change our future capacity to innovate. By disengaging the academic R&D enterprise from industry, our students are socialized away from industry application. The odd person that actually commercializes research is the lone hero walking the post-apocalyptic world left in ruin, a world in which ivory towers are overgrown with vines, waiting for a hero to cut through to unearth the glory of a past civilization.

But the moral here is that we should celebrate the many successes of applied research in our colleges, polytechnics and universities. Enlightened programs such as NSERC's College and Community Innovation Program, Engage, and MITACS are all finding ways to link industry with the academic sector. These are good for Canada's future productivity.

For the real research zombie in this tale are the ideas emerging from our basic research that we ship off the land to be commercialized by another country, only to stumble back across the border as they are sold back to us. They haunt us still, and find company in the lagging industry R&D spending. To those who fear the future of trying to exercise the potential of the entire educational spectrum, realize that these are not the ruins of the past, but rather the runes of the future: the ability to resurrect our moribund record on R&D commercialization, and to breathe new life into our capacity as a country to innovate. As any good literary scholar will tell us, the apocalypse is not an ending; it is a new beginning.

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