30 August 2013

CCA releases the State of Industrial R&D report

The Council of Canadian Academies has released its report on the State of Industrial R&D (IR&D). The report is a complement to the CCA's State of S&T in Canada, 2012, of which I was a member of the expert panel, and as such I've been awaiting this report. Along with other reports such as the Jenkins Panel report and the CCA's Innovation Impacts (among other excellent reports on S&T and related phenomena), these two taken together provide a good picture of all that is working well and not in Canadian research, development and innovation.

There are very few surprises in the report on IR&D. We see more evidence that Canadian industry does not perform much R&D compared to our international counterparts, and compared to our public R&D. This is old news. George Brown' College's report Toronto Next: Return on Innovation provided a snapshot of industry's lackluster approach to R&D and innovation, namely that over half of those businesses we surveyed said it is the responsibility of government for innovation. Coupled with the overall weak investment in new technologies and training for employees, it is not surprising that the State of IR&D is dismal.

I was pleased to see the expert panel on IR&D conduct an analysis of the alignment between public S&T (HERD), industrial R&D (BERD), and economic strength. No surprise here either: there isn't much. There is a good discussion on the different incentives inherent in the public and private sectors. For a look at the stark difference between the US and Canada, turn to page 143, where we see two juxtaposed quotations. The first, from the US, states: "the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (2012) argued that university research can 'benefit the Nation only insofar as these accomplishments are effectively coupled to the needs of a strong private sector.'" Second, we hear from Marcel Côté and Roger Miller, who say that "Universities are generally concerned by the lack of connections between professional research and economic development in the surrounding region. They should not be." The value of universities is in preparing HQSP and creating new knowledge. Both true. But when the production of new knowledge is dislocated from the mean of production in the economy, then we have the kind of innovation malaise that Canada is plagued by.

There is no easy fix here, and I am not suggesting that all basic research be tied to economic imperatives. But the State of IR&D is a wake up call for all of us involved in promoting better productivity through research - both basic and applied -  to do a better job of linking our world leading S&T capacity to what Canadian industry can capitalize on. Or, we continue to be complacent with our role as hewers of wood, drawers of water, and producers of ideas for others to commercialize. Either way, let's get serious about connecting public policy, S&T capacity, and firm productivity and innovation.

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