16 October 2013

The paradox of Canadian research

The Council of Canadian Academies recently released an overview of the Canadian R&D and innovation,
Paradox Lost: Explaining Canada’s Research Strength and Innovation Weakness. The report is a summation of successive expert panels on the state of R&D and innovation capacity, and the result is best summed up by the view that Canada suffers from "demand-side problems for which supply-side solutions continue to be proposed." What this means is that we have a systematic failure in this country to capitalize on the excellent basic research capacity we possess in our world leading research institutions. This failure is two-fold: we do not commercialize inventions effectively, nor does our industry invest in R&D and innovation, thereby offering a poor receptor to the outputs of academic excellence.

The issues that arise in the CCA analysis are given a good treatment in Richard Hawkins's Institute for
Science, Society and Policy paper Looking at Innovation from a Uniquely Canadian Perspective. Hawkins provides one of the more cogent reviews of why we as a country are not advancing innovation to the extent many feel we should be. His analysis includes the relative terms under which the innovation policies of OECD countries are keeping pace with each other, but also in that we have ICT related measurements when we should be looking elsewhere for our yardstick. Specifically, Hawkins says we are yearning to be a knowledge based economy, when in reality we are a resource extraction and a knowledge based economy. This is a subtle yet important distinction that relates to the supply-demand disruption that the CCA report informs. 

This reinforces a point I've made a few times, and most recently in commenting on CCA's State of Industrial R&D report: when the production of new knowledge is dislocated from the means of production in the economy, then we have the kind of innovation malaise that Canada is plagued by.

Not all research needs to be oriented toward a practical outcome, but better science policy is needed to ensure that where applicable our world leading basic research can be effectively channeled into the market. This needs to be coupled with industrial policy whereby industry does a better job of investing in the trifecta of industrial productivity: investments in R&D, education and training, and new technology.

I am looking forward to discussing these important issues at the upcoming Science and Society 2013 conference at the University of Ottawa. There is an exciting agenda for the conference, and I'll be on a panel discussing "The Future of Fundamental Research in Canada."  In addressing the conference theme question of How can we understand and improve the interplay between science and society, and improve science policies for the future?, I will be speaking speak to concepts related to going From Ideas to Innovation: The Role of Colleges and Polytechnics is Supporting Canadian Applied Research.

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