15 September 2015

Innovation policy the rhetoric of research

There has been some good coverage in the Globe and Mail recently on innovation policy in Canada, leveraging the current election to promote fruitful discussion on this important aspect of public policy. One of the better pieces was by Doug Saunders on Saturday, where he asks "The question of Election 2015: Can government create jobs and growth?". In a nutshell he lays bare the need for government intervention in the economy specifically as it relates to promoting innovation in extant and emergent industrial sectors. The government's role is not to pick winners and losers, but rather to create gravitational pull towards specific goals such that industries can develop. Most importantly he cites the work of Mariana Mazzucato and her book The Entrepreneurial State (a must read). We need to get away from the tax incentives as a spur to innovation - these are not working. Instead, direct supports - such as those recommended by Polytechnics Canada  recently - will go much further in supporting a holistic approach to both industrial and academic R&D productivity. This point, made by Saunders and repeated today by Kevin Lynch, is seemingly not well understood in Canada.

Saunders makes a significant error in his reporting; in paraphrasing Mazzucato, he talks about the Canadian predilection to invest in what he calls "pure research." In the quote from Mazzucato, she talks about the continuum of basic research, applied research, and commercialization. It is worth quoting this passage in its entirety:
“What doesn’t work,” Dr. Mazzucato says, “is when the direct investments are too focused on one part of the innovation chain. The kind of active government involvement that was characteristic of Silicon Valley and places like Denmark – that government involvement has been across the entire innovation chain. Basic research? Yes. Applied research and early-stage financing for companies? Yes. Those countries that think they can just spend a lot on science and a lot on basic research and assume business can take care of the rest, without also having a strong presence in public policy – they tend to fail.”
Saunders's error is a linguistic one that is common among Canada's R&D policy set: equating basic research with the term pure research automatically confers on applied research and commercialization the connotation that this is impure. You might think this does not matter. But language constitutes reality, and in the partisan world of research funding, where one is seen as preferable to the other in the scrum for scant dollars, we would be wise to heed Mazzucato's words to diversify our investments along the innovation chain.

Saunders should be aware of this linguistic issue, having written arguably one of the better histories of Canada's consistent failure to embrace innovation in a 2012 piece called "My ancestors and the worst thing that has ever happened to this country." In this, he outlines may aspects of the historical antecedents of our long standing failure to capitalize on anything other than raw resources, and how
the idea of an individualistic, entrepreneurial, industrially adventurous economy became alien and undesirable. The hewing of wood, the drawing of water and the selling of furs may been the origins of Canada, but the post-1812 rulers turned them into an unavoidable fate.
With the opportunity before us to engage in dialogue and debate, I believe we can turn around this "unavoidable fate."

On that note, a good read on the connections between all forms of research and the complementary aspects of various education outcomes can be found in Fragmented Systems: Connecting Players in Canada’s Skills Challenge, released this week by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. 

No comments: