08 August 2011

Canada needs to think about R&D ROI3

Saturday's Globe and Mail has an interview with the National Research Council's president John McDougall, who offers a very refreshing perspective on the need for Canada to make choices around the R&D we finance. Echoing statements I've made in this space myself, McDougall says that we should be looking for a return on investment for our R&D efforts, and directing the use of public monies into those areas that Canada needs addressing and can excel in. While his choices of areas may not be to everyone's liking, the idea of directive research efforts is something Canada would do well to listen to. While our ratio of HERD spending per capita is fourth in the OECD, our GDP is not large enough to enable unfettered research in all areas. McDougall decries the "slice and dice" mentality Canada brings to the distribution of funding, and posits that correcting this is one way to address our long standing innovation gap: “We’re dealing with limited resources, and it’s not as if there is a mattress full of money that keeps replenishing itself. We’ve got to get value out of it.”

As the article notes, this is a fairly controversial stance. Regardless, kudos to McDougall for addressing the need to balance our commitment to funding all basic research with the very real need to turn Canada's brightest minds to addressing significant problems we face as a country.

Canada's enviable status at the top of the world research heap is to be commended, but it is time for us to make concerted efforts at producing results based on this deep pool of excellence. Part of the issue here. McDougall notes, is that the general public is not able to understand the connection between basic science, innovation and productivity: “We aren’t clear with the public in Canada what we are doing. They can’t see it,” he said. “Part of success means being able to communicate with people so they understand what you’re doing and why it matters.” This is essential to enabling our industry to see the connections between innovation and productivity  and for our research community to see the crucial links between getting ideas out of the labs and into the market, while helping industry innovate and compete.

Helping industry innovate is what colleges and polytechnics do well. Linking the Canadian research enterprise to industry needs does not sully research nor lower quality. Quite the opposite. Rather, articulating basic research, universities, government labs and colleges with industry will help Canada address our long standing innovation gap and poor productivity.

As I said earlier: Doing so will achieve a threefold ROI:
  1. A Return on Interest from basic research that provokes thought and ideas, leading to disruptive innovations through long term research investment;
  2. A Return on Innovation from applied research that increases industry R&D spending and our collective capacity to innovate, leading to improved productivity; and
  3. A Return on Investment from experimental development through the creation of new products and processes and through the training of students, who enter the workforce ready to innovate.

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