23 November 2011

Innovation, competitiveness, productivity: who is responsible for research outcomes?

The ACCT Canada conference concluded this week, and as indicated in my last post, featured many good speakers discussing the role of technology transfer and commercialization of research in Canada. Highlights included a Debate on Commercialization Systems & Supports, in which John Molloy, President & CEO, PARTEQ Innovations, asked rhetorically: given that Canada spends $6B per year on R&D, who is responsible for commercialization of research? The notion of responsibility resonated with me, as it foregrounds a very useful discussion relating to Canada's poor record on innovation and productivity.

I've noted here before that not all research need be oriented to a commercial outcome. That said, all research has a purpose, be it discovery or applied. The difference is in the time horizon of this application. It is disingenuous of us to say that we conduct research for its own sake, for even curiosity driven research has an outcome rooted in an unspecified future.

The panel I moderated on the role of colleges, polytechnics and CCTTs featured an excellent discussion by the panelists on these issues. Nobina Robinson, Chief Executive Officer, Polytechnics Canada, Michel Trepanier, Professor, INRS UCS and Institut de recherche sur les PME/UQTR, Niall Wallace, CEO, Infonaut, Inc., and Vanessa Williamson, Executive Director, Colleges Ontario Network for Industry Innovation engaged ideas such as the role incremental innovation, increasing productivity in low technology areas of the economy, the need to facilitate partnerships between academic and industry where the client is the focus and fostering risk and responsibility in our approach to innovation. This perspective on applied research foregrounds the difference between push versus pull research, and a good point was made that in the Canadian R&D scene there is no real voice for the industry partner, particularly small to medium enterprises (SMEs). Bringing this voice to bear is something Polytechnics Canada has been a particularly strong advocate for, and underscores the college applied research mandate of linking the training of highly qualified and skilled personnel (HQSO) to the applied research endeavour as one way to foster greater innovation literacy in the economy writ large.

The audience engagement was interesting given the scope of the questions. We are at a unique juncture in Canada with respect to the engagement of the college applied research layer of the R&D ecosystem, and working together in complementary ways to link basic and applied research with industry and commercial outcomes is an entirely appropriate thing to do given our need to increase innovation, competitiveness, and productivity. To shy away from this is to abrogate our responsibility to the future as entrusted to all of us who receive public money to engage in our work.

Other interesting discussions included an overview of Canada’s Commercialization Challenges by Sorin Cohn, Chief Program Officer, i-Canada, and an excellent review of Trends in Industrial Research: Implications for tech transfer by Ron Freedman, Co-founder, The Impact Group in a luncheon keynote. Freedman's slide deck is online here, and is well worth a read.

Chad Gaffield, President of SSHRC, convened a panel on People Centered Innovations, that sparked interesting discussions relevant to the notion of responsibility and the ability of the education system to respond to the needs of the labour market. I've written before on Gaffield's notion of people centred innovation particularly as this relates to supply and demand for talent in the innovation economy. This is a very important point and highly relevant to what Gaffield termed customer-centric innovation, which is a good link to the recent Roger Martin article on this topic.

The preparation of human capital for the workforce, what Prof Jean Charest of Université de Montréal on the People Centered Innovations panel termed "human capability, is vital to the national economy. To dislocate the academic enterprise from the economy is to endanger the future of our productivity. People are the basis of innovation and entrepreneurship, and innovation is inherently a social activity. The responsibility - or response-ability - that all publicly funded people have is to help prepare the talent for the economy of the future. This includes integrating what I've termed  innovation literacy across academic programs as we engage all HQSP in the R&D enterprise, whether basic or applied.

On the subject of talent and HQSP, SSHRC is currently engaged in a renewal of their Talent Program. The discussion document outlines SSHRC's approach to this renewal, and contains a call to action for all of us engaged in education and research. I encourage everyone so engaged to review the Talent Program Renewal discussion guide and to respond to the questions posed therein. This represents a key moment to influence the future of our innovative capacity, particularly as it relates to people at the centre of the innovation economy. Key elements of the discussion include adopting a more consistent approach to research training across all of SSHRC programs, provisions for multi-institutional (and cross-sectoral) partnerships to support research training, and a range of further modifications and improvements to existing programs of direct support. The deadline for feedback is 15 December. As noted above, we have a responsibility - and an ability to respond - to this call to action. It is important that we do so.

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