30 November 2010

College applied research and the diffusion of innovation

I had the opportunity yesterday to address the Expert Panel on Review of Federal Business Research and Development Programs on the role of college applied research in the Canadian innovation system. My slide deck with notes is available here.

Appearing on the same time slot was John Molloy, president and CEO or Parteq Innovations, who was representing the university technology transfer side of the equation. Molloy led with an overview of the need for "aggressive commercialization," which boils down to the need to properly fund industry liaison activities external to, but which are cognizant of, the academic environment. Their focus is on disruptive innovation, not incremental innovation, seeking to take the big science finds and get these to market with as much alacrity and capital as possible.

The college applied research piece of the innovation system focuses on the incremental innovation space and the diffusion of innovation. We were highly aligned on the need for a complementary approach to industry R&D. We are also aligned on the need for integrating students from all levels of education into innovation activities. I've made the point earlier that fostering innovation literacy has a multiplier effect on industry innovation capacity.

Of particular importance to colleges and universities is how well we prepare the next generation of talent for entrepreneurial and innovation activities. Typically in Canada we measure the effects of student engagement in R&D by counting Highly Qualified Personnel (HQP), which refers primarily to graduate students. We need to expand this to include undergraduate college students and count Highly Qualified and Skilled Personnel (HQSP) to capture the larger potential of engaging our entire work force in innovation capacity development. Those with graduate degrees represent a small percentage of our population (less than 5%). HQSP embraces the role of advanced skills and education and reinforces a multiplier effect that innovation literacy can have on the wider population. When we expose our students in colleges to applied research problem solving they gain innovation literacy, as noted above. Colleges offer diplomas through to undergraduate degrees. Students so equipped with innovation literacy are more amenable to working with those with advanced degrees on innovation activities. We need innovation literacy at all levels of the work force. Our productivity and innovation challenges demand of us a consolidated approach to improving the innovation capacity of all workers in all sectors of the economy. Doing so will enhance the diffusion of innovation at all levels of the economy.

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.

23 November 2010

Higher Education Summit addresses innovation, credit transfer

Colleges Ontario's annual conference was held in Toronto the last two days, and featured many discussions on education as an enabler of downstream social and economic productivity. Highlights included the Conference Board's report on college applied research, "Innovation Catalysts and Accelerators: The Impact of Ontario Colleges’ Applied Research", and expert panels on credit transfer and addressing the future needs of society amidst change and challenge (c.f. demographics and the economy). There was also a great talk by the CBC's Bob McDonald who outlined the role of science in knowledge generation and how we ignore the role of knowledge change over time at our peril.

On the issue of credit transfer and articulation of the Ontario education system, I was disappointed to hear many people talk about how difficult this will be in Ontario and how it won't work, or won't work easily. While it is certainly important to acknowledge the challenges we face in achieving a true educational system, it is clear that we need to modernize the Ontario educational system. Adopting an "any point of entry; any point of exit" model such as Alberta's (to name one jurisdiction) will greatly aid our overall capacity to innovate and compete internationally. It is too easy to say why this can't be done in Ontario; it is much more difficult to work at building a responsive education system that has the needs of students and employers in mind.We need to challenge ourselves as a system, make bold, future-facing decisions, and act now to build the framework for integrating new immigrants and addressing the skills gaps and shortages that are upon us.  The innovation economy demands innovative responses to the challenges we face.

09 November 2010

Drop in BERD troubling

I saw a recent news story on US business expenditures on R&D (BERD) having dropped for the first time in the 13 years the sort of study has been conducted. When Googling for a link to the story I found a report that the same is true for the European Union. This is troubling, particularly given that times of recession are better times than most to invest in R&D and innovation. We need industry to step up and invest. College applied research funding programs such as the NSERC CCIP are de facto instruments of the state to socialize industry to spend on R&D, giving our student innovation literacy in the process. This point is made in the recent Conference Board of Canada report on applied research.

02 November 2010

Conference Board releases report on college applied research

The Conference Board of Canada today released a report on college applied research. "Innovation Catalysts and Accelerators: The Impact of Ontario Colleges’ Applied Research" offers important information on the complementary role that colleges play in the Canadian innovation system. This includes encouraging industry to invest in R&D, something Canadian firms do not do on par with our international counterparts. Correcting the imbalance between Canada's high per capita spending on R&D funded through higher education institutions and the lack of spending by the private sector is a key concern of government today. Failure to do so will result in lowered productivity and a continuation of our downward trend on our innovation capacity.