31 May 2010

Productivity, research, standard of living

I've been remiss in commenting on the recent announcement of the $190M Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) Program, particularly in light of a couple of opinion pieces in the Globe and Mail. The first by Sumitra Rajagopalan ("When science gets political, long-term knowledge is lost") raises the question of why there were no women candidates in the pool of CERC researchers. However, she also laments the federal government's focus on applied research and the setting of national research objectives and priorities. This is flawed thinking. As I've noted many times before, Canada is first in the G8 (second in all of OECD) for Higher Education R&D (HERD) spending. We lag in Business Expenditures on R&D (BERD). Failure to reorient this imbalance will continue to skew our overall productivity. Jeffrey Simpson offers praise for the CERC program, but also points out that such a focus on research at the university level may be a detriment to teaching undergraduates.

The College focus on applied research sees undergraduate teaching and learning as core to our applied research mandate. That is, we integrate students in all of our applied research projects because it gives them innovation literacy - key problem solving skills relevant to their future jobs.

I was reminded of the importance of these issues when I read an editorial in today's Globe. "Wealthy, healthy and wise" points to the recent report by TD Economics that details the need for further post-secondary education spending in Canada as a key way to arrest falling productivity. The TD report is excellent; however, the Globe gets it wrong by focusing only on university education. Canada may be 11th in OECD university participation rates, but we are first in tertiary education when Colleges are included in the mix. We need to realize that a focus on complementarity for both research and education is necessary - where all facets of the PSE system are combined in a single, focused innovation system that links the provision of advanced education at the college and university level matched to both applied and fundamental research capabilities. Both inquiry based research and the support of industrial applied R&D needs are essential to resolving Canada's overall innovation and productivity malaise.

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