24 June 2015

Seizing the Moment: Input to NSERC's Strategy 2020

NSERC President Dr Mario Pinto recently launched a wide consultation into a new Strategy for the organization. George Brown College hosted one of the town hall consultation session which was well attended by college faculty, staff and industry partners. I submitted the following comments to the online survey, pulling from many ideas and comments made in this space over the past few years.

Going forward, will the NSERC 2020 Strategy help the Canadian research community achieve this vision?

Canada has a productivity problem – industrial and academic – and the NSERC Strategy 2020 has the potential to reinvigorate the research, development and innovation (RDI) continuum in Canada, provided some small changes are made to its focus. Canada has a strong research and development capacity, though this is overly focused on basic research. Applied research, supported through universities, colleges and polytechnics, is lagging. We have excellent basic research capacity but very low innovation capacity – our academic research does not produce comparable outputs and our businesses do not invest in R&D to the rate of our OECD counterparts. This is a serious problem that needs to be explicitly addressed in the NSERC Strategy.

The Council of Canadian Academies State of Science and Technology, 2012 report outlines this problem:
  • 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
This represents a serious academic productivity challenge that is compounded by low industry investment. Where Canada leads the G7 in per capita public funding for R&D (Higher Education Expenditures on R&D – HERD), we lag the OECD in Business Expenditures on R&D (BERD).

The four strategic goals are highly laudable and will be effective inputs to a healthy and vibrant RDI ecosystem. Under number 2 – Building a diversified and competitive research base, it mentions that “We will build upon the potential of academic institutions of all sizes” – this needs to be amended to “all types and sizes.” Since 2003, when the federal investments first began for college and polytechnic applied research, these investment have not only grown steadily but have shown proven results. George Brown College, as one example, works equally well with our private sector partners – helping firms to get new products and services to market, in the process creating jobs and wealth in the economy. We also work with scientists and researchers in Greater Toronto Area universities, helping them to get products made, PhDs completed, patents and publications into the marketplace. We have an opportunity to link an emergent RDI ecosystem comprising universities, colleges and polytechnics, to the private sector. This will help ensure that we can work together in productive ways to aid universities in getting innovations to market, while linking the private sector to both applied and basic research capacity that exists in our post-secondary education systems. In so doing, we will increase academic and industry productivity, ensure that students from across the spectrum of qualifications understand innovation, and create prosperity for all. This supports your third strategic goal of “Strengthening the dynamic between discovery and innovation.” For the workforce functions best when complementary expertise from a variety of disciplines and depth work well together.

How can we work together to ensure success?

We have an unprecedented historical opportunity to leverage all components of the RDI ecosystem toward greater productivity and innovation capacity. When we focus on giving students – from apprentice through undergraduate to graduate – the experience of working together in high functioning cross disciplinary teams on invention and innovation, we help to create and foster the next generation of talent that understands complementary expertise as a vital component to vibrant economies. This means enhancing the capacity of colleges and polytechnics to engage in applied research with firms and university partners – the CCI Program has started this through innovative funding instruments that support college applied research capacity and college, university and industry partnerships. These efforts must be enhanced.

The commitment to global excellence is well founded, and there is strong precedent here. As the CCA 2012 report indicates we “punch well above our weight” in terms of our basic research capacity. It is widely known, and has been studied extensively by successive expert panels (Jenkins Panel, CCA) that our innovation capacity lags seriously. The NRC’s Concierge Service is one way that we can enhance and foster greater partnerships. We should do more. NSERC has a significant role to play in terms of your ability to have line of sight into world leading basic and applied research capacity. Linking universities, colleges ad polytechnics with the private sector can be the purview of NSERC partnerships. Taking a proactive view to building links and bridges, either via geography or sector-based, will enable scientists to access the skills and talent, machinery, equipment and markets and networks inherent in the college and polytechnic sector. Building complementary expertise in relevant scientific priority areas will enhance overall economic performance by ensuring higher academic invention productivity while linking to industry receptivity.

Industry as a whole does not perform enough R&D, nor understands the need for it in some cases. The geography of basic research in our world leading universities is not necessary linked to industrial receptivity. Providing greater stewardship of R&D results into, for example, prototyping and development capacity at a college or polytechnic, and then linking this explicitly to potential industrial partners, will help Canada improve our R&D standing. We need this kind of market intervention in order to realize the value of the investments we are making. There are those who will resist this thinking, either on ideological grounds (against any market intervention) or on the basis of any money going to one sector is less for another. This is outmoded thinking. The future prosperity of Canada demands we take a complementary and equitable approach, realize value for money on our investments, and ensure that we leverage all aspects of the publicly funded RDI system – linking the production of highly qualified and skilled personnel from across the educational spectrum. Doing so will future proof the investments made to date, and be a hedge against the global competition for talent and industrial development. The NSERC Strategy 2020 is a timely opportunity to stake out our future potential.

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