16 December 2014

Industry-Academic partnerships have a role to play in R&D

While decrying the imposition of business into the science and technology (research) endeavours in the country, many conveniently ignore a few basic facts. Canada spends more per capita on public spending for research and development (R&D) than other G8 countries, yet we are the lowest for business spending on R&D. We have an enviable record of invention and publication, yet one of the worst records on innovation. Compounding the issue is that we do not have the GDP to support unfettered research into anything and everything. We must make choices.

In 2012 the Council of Canadian Academies published the Expert Panel Report on the State of Science and Technology in Canada (on which I had the pleasure of serving), which found that:
  • Canada is among the 5 leading countries in 7 of 22 fields, and among the 10 leading countries in an additional 14 fields.
  • With 0.5 per cent of the world’s population, Canada accounted for 4.1 per cent of research papers in 2005-2010 (7th in the world)
  • However, Canada holds only 1.7 per cent of patents
  • In 2010 Canada had a negative balance of nearly $5 billion in royalties and licensing revenues
There is much to be celebrated about Canada’s world leading basic research. We need more focus on translating this research into practical application for social and economic good. Our negative balance in IP – one of the worst records in the world – should be alarming to any Canadian. Successive expert panels have all said 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 research.

Well-funded basic research is necessary, but not sufficient for a functioning innovation economy. Countries like Canada, with our economy so dependent on resource extraction industries, need to start adding value to the raw resources we extract so we are less dependent on things like the price of oil. Basic research with little or no focus on application or commercialization becomes just one more example of how Canada exports raw commodities (ideas) without adding value (commercialization of these ideas). We can no longer afford this.

Integrating industry within the value chain of research and development means that we have an academic culture oriented toward applying basic research, when and where this is applicable. This enables industry to have easy access to our university, polytechnic and college basic and applied research capacity to help create social and economic value. Where ideas emerge that are ready and can be taken to market, we need industrial receptivity to make this happen. This requires a corresponding receptivity in our publicly funded research organizations to working with industry.

The new Science Technology and Innovation Strategy strikes a balance between basic and applied research, encouraging an ecosystem approach to innovation. This means fostering partnerships among our universities, polytechnics and colleges and industry to spur industry R&D spending and the emergence of inventions into the market. For example, Polytechnics and Colleges like George Brown work with many university scientists, helping them to get PhDs, patents, publication and products out the door, just as easily as we work with industry to get new products and services to market.

Innovation intermediaries are needed to fix what is broken in our innovation system. This requires partnerships – not partisanship – and a focus on making choices about where we invest as a country. Building the next generation of scientists, workers and business leaders requires hard work and cooperation. We have the foundation; let’s build on it together.

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