30 August 2013

CCA releases the State of Industrial R&D report

The Council of Canadian Academies has released its report on the State of Industrial R&D (IR&D). The report is a complement to the CCA's State of S&T in Canada, 2012, of which I was a member of the expert panel, and as such I've been awaiting this report. Along with other reports such as the Jenkins Panel report and the CCA's Innovation Impacts (among other excellent reports on S&T and related phenomena), these two taken together provide a good picture of all that is working well and not in Canadian research, development and innovation.

There are very few surprises in the report on IR&D. We see more evidence that Canadian industry does not perform much R&D compared to our international counterparts, and compared to our public R&D. This is old news. George Brown' College's report Toronto Next: Return on Innovation provided a snapshot of industry's lackluster approach to R&D and innovation, namely that over half of those businesses we surveyed said it is the responsibility of government for innovation. Coupled with the overall weak investment in new technologies and training for employees, it is not surprising that the State of IR&D is dismal.

I was pleased to see the expert panel on IR&D conduct an analysis of the alignment between public S&T (HERD), industrial R&D (BERD), and economic strength. No surprise here either: there isn't much. There is a good discussion on the different incentives inherent in the public and private sectors. For a look at the stark difference between the US and Canada, turn to page 143, where we see two juxtaposed quotations. The first, from the US, states: "the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (2012) argued that university research can 'benefit the Nation only insofar as these accomplishments are effectively coupled to the needs of a strong private sector.'" Second, we hear from Marcel Côté and Roger Miller, who say that "Universities are generally concerned by the lack of connections between professional research and economic development in the surrounding region. They should not be." The value of universities is in preparing HQSP and creating new knowledge. Both true. But when the production of new knowledge is dislocated from the mean of production in the economy, then we have the kind of innovation malaise that Canada is plagued by.

There is no easy fix here, and I am not suggesting that all basic research be tied to economic imperatives. But the State of IR&D is a wake up call for all of us involved in promoting better productivity through research - both basic and applied -  to do a better job of linking our world leading S&T capacity to what Canadian industry can capitalize on. Or, we continue to be complacent with our role as hewers of wood, drawers of water, and producers of ideas for others to commercialize. Either way, let's get serious about connecting public policy, S&T capacity, and firm productivity and innovation.

20 August 2013

The future of Canadian innovation

It's been quite a summer for Canadian innovation. By this I mean the incipient dissolution of Blackberry, which seems to be headed for a rather uncertain fate. A recent Globe article, If BlackBerry is sold, Canada faces an innovation vacuum, underscores the importance of Blackberry to the Canadian innovation landscape. It also reinforces a point I've made repeatedly - as others have - about Canada's lagging industry R&D spending being one of the main drags on the innovation economy.

A couple of months ago I got a new phone and I chose the Blackberry Z10. By all accounts it's a good product - a tad derivative in its form factor perhaps, but all told a pretty solid and reliable phone. The problem is, as many have pointed out, it is too late. As some tell it, Blackberry missed the concept of user experience and the ecosystem of apps that Apple and Android have encouraged. Regardless, if Blackberry isn't revived it doesn't augur well for Canadian technology companies. Or does it? Perhaps this will reinforce the value of failure and spur others on to greater heights.

The federal government and here in Ontario the provincial government have launched industry innovation vouchers as a way to get industry engaged in R&D. College, polytechnics, even universities now are open for business innovation. This is a good thing. We need to explicitly link the talent, facilities and networks latent in our world leading public R&D institutions to the needs of industry. Some will decry this as the corporatization of education, of meddling with the sanctity of science, of an impending zombie apocalypse. Do not listen to these people, for they fear the future and live in the past. We need good science, unfettered by practical concerns. We also need good science, inextricably linked to practical concerns.

It's time to get past our either|or libertarianism and realize that we do not just have rights on the present, but we have responsibility for the future. I'm optimistic about this future - with or without Blackberry.