30 November 2015

From basic research to the entrepreneurial state

An interview in the Globe with the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, offers a notably balanced view on the state of Science and Technology (S&T) and the differentiation between basic research and innovation. It nicely separates five often conflated issues: scientific muzzling in federal departments by the previous government (to be fair the Globe's Konrad Yakabuski says that the Chretien government did the same thing), the anti-environmentalism of the Harper government, the HERD spend, the BERD spend, and finally the need to increase commercialization and BERD.

It is important to point out that despite what the Globe reports in its interview with Minister Duncan, Canada ranks much higher than average on S&T. This was demonstrated by the Council of Canadian Academies' Expert Panel report on S&T, published in 2012 (and on which I served).

The consistent lumping together of low BERD (a proxy for poor industry innovation and productivity) with the lack of commercialization of basic research muddies understanding and does a continual disservice to public policy in Canada. 

First off, Canada has an excellent record when it comes to basic research (see the CCA's S&T report, linked above). Turning our research outputs into commercialization successes is where we fall down. Canada’s consistent lack of commercialization of basic research, well documented by many expert panels, is generally seen as a failure of business to invest in R&D or to be receptive to the outputs of academic research. This does not make sense as it confuses the basic research function with industry innovation capacity. These are related, but separate.   

There is an issue of receptivity for academic and industry partnerships, as outlined in my last post. These originate in the lab from discovery or basic research, or from industry, and are demand driven. A review of the mandate letters for Minister Duncan and Minister Bains shows that the government understands this distinction and is taking steps to correct a deficit of evidence-based policy. As well, they're taking steps to promote (and fund, presumably) the discovery to innovation continuum. This means basic research, through applied research right on to experimental development.

And into this mix the Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC) has filed its latest report. There are no surprises here: a focus on increasing both HERD and BERD, support more firm level innovation, take more risks, and importantly, "invest strategically, further focusing government funds to build globally competitive critical mass in targeted areas." This last point aligns well with the new government's incipient Innovation Agenda and its focus on being "the entrepreneurial state." Minister Duncan's goal to "Lead the establishment of new Canada Research Chairs in sustainable technologies, working with the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development" aligns well with this mode of thinking. The state must be an active agent in the setting of national priorities for basic research. Climate change and sustainable technologies are among the most urgent priorities of the day.

The STIC recommendations, read alongside the incoming innovation agenda, show that the polytechnic and college applied research model is needed now more than ever. As I pointed out back in 2010:
The key for college applied research is instrumentality, or the intentional application of applied research and innovation services to industry needs and contexts. This means that we are focused on addressing the industry problems faced by firms who are seeking to innovate and create new value in their sectors. We are an explicit instrument for addressing these industry problems, meaning that we respond to what is needed, fitting into the R&D continuum for latter stage innovation support. 
Polytechnic and college applied research offers an instrumental component to increasing commercialization of basic research while helping to foster greater industry innovation capacity. We do this while providing our students with crucial innovation skills across a wide variety of industries, skills and experiences that are complementary to those that university graduates gain in their fields of study. 

We can benefit from more investment in basic research, as long as there is explicit planning and management of applied research and experimental development – the innovation side of the equation. Ultimately what we know right now of the new government's innovation agenda is good news for Canada and R&D generally. The challenge is to realize the downstream value of our HERD investments. Pushing harder on the innovate button won’t work. The role of the entrepreneurial state here is to specifically foster two things: greater academic productivity (read: commercialization) and industry innovation capacity (read: BERD).

There is really no mystery here: unpacking the “black box” of research commercialization and industry innovation requires the capacity for collaboration, and necessitates complementary approaches to increasing academic and industrial innovation capacity and productivity. Understanding these as two distinct yet intertwined phenomena is essential to ensuring we can leverage the right instrument against the right problem at the right time. Think of this as innovation therapy.

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