17 October 2013

Science, Technology, Innovation

Yesterday's Speech from the Throne  included many items of relevance to the post secondary education community: experiential learning, apprenticeship and skills, credit transfer across provincial boundaries, and importantly, the updated S&T Strategy, due out in the coming months. This is notable for a subtle shift in language: the new document is a Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy. The inclusion of innovation signals a move toward a more inclusive approach to the full spectrum of S&T or R&D: basic, applied research through to experimental development and market entry (c.f. innovation).

This does not come as  surprise to anyone in the sector. As I pointed out yesterday, the Council of Canadian Academies' recent summary on how research can better be connected to innovation (i.e. making money from the fruits of R&D labour) makes explicit the need to better connect supply and demand in the R&D space. This is not to say that our world leading basic research institutions are not productive - far from it. As the CCA report The State of Science and Technology in Canada 2012 outlines, Canada punches far above our weight in terms of our track record on publications: "Canadian science and technology is healthy and growing in both output and impact. With less than 0.5 per cent of the world’s population, Canada produces 4.1 per cent of the world’s research papers and nearly 5 per cent of the world’s most frequently cited papers." This is something to be very proud of.

But as everyone knows, we are not good at applied research or the innovation side of the spectrum. While it is true we have strong pockets of applied research, notably in our university engineering departments and in the college and polytechnic sectors, the latter who focus on industry applied research, more work is needed to ensure more of our basic research leads to Canadian industrial productivity, not just academic productivity.

Alex Usher explores the differences between basic and applied research in his daily column today. He offers some good thoughts relevant to the innovation spectrum discussion. He also provides a link to a very interesting HBR article on the DARPA model of research and innovation. The DARPA model is well worth the read, as the authors cite three operating principles of the storied agency: Ambitious goals, Temporary project teams, and Independence. In reading this it occurred to me that one of the issues we have in Canada is the lack of the second point - that is, we do not orient ourselves toward temporary measures, instead preferring to set up large institutions around which we cohere our R&D and innovation policies. It also occurs to me that this point is connected to the fact that one third of the Canadian population works for some form of government - a high percentage by international standards. We seek security and stability (not such a bad thing, really), but in so doing run the risk of being risk averse.

The point that I want to make is that there may be a direct link between our need for security and this oft-cited risk aversion we purportedly possess. More to the point, an independent-ish agency like DARPA, with its temporary assignments and audacious goals, has a model that looks to harness the best and brightest for almost ad hoc work with relatively short event horizons, thus producing a highly mobile and extemporaneous approach to projects that embrace failure and iteration, as well as uncertainty (i.e. no job security within DARPA itself).

I'm making a lot of assumptions here, but I think there is a connection to be made between our model of institutionalizing the R&D&I enterprise and a relative inability to be flexible and to embrace innovation more fully. This is coupled, of course, with a lack of instrumentality in connecting the ends of basic research to the means of production, as I have pointed out before. Therein lies the paradox of Canadian research.

16 October 2013

The paradox of Canadian research

The Council of Canadian Academies recently released an overview of the Canadian R&D and innovation,
Paradox Lost: Explaining Canada’s Research Strength and Innovation Weakness. The report is a summation of successive expert panels on the state of R&D and innovation capacity, and the result is best summed up by the view that Canada suffers from "demand-side problems for which supply-side solutions continue to be proposed." What this means is that we have a systematic failure in this country to capitalize on the excellent basic research capacity we possess in our world leading research institutions. This failure is two-fold: we do not commercialize inventions effectively, nor does our industry invest in R&D and innovation, thereby offering a poor receptor to the outputs of academic excellence.

The issues that arise in the CCA analysis are given a good treatment in Richard Hawkins's Institute for
Science, Society and Policy paper Looking at Innovation from a Uniquely Canadian Perspective. Hawkins provides one of the more cogent reviews of why we as a country are not advancing innovation to the extent many feel we should be. His analysis includes the relative terms under which the innovation policies of OECD countries are keeping pace with each other, but also in that we have ICT related measurements when we should be looking elsewhere for our yardstick. Specifically, Hawkins says we are yearning to be a knowledge based economy, when in reality we are a resource extraction and a knowledge based economy. This is a subtle yet important distinction that relates to the supply-demand disruption that the CCA report informs. 

This reinforces a point I've made a few times, and most recently in commenting on CCA's State of Industrial R&D report: when the production of new knowledge is dislocated from the means of production in the economy, then we have the kind of innovation malaise that Canada is plagued by.

Not all research needs to be oriented toward a practical outcome, but better science policy is needed to ensure that where applicable our world leading basic research can be effectively channeled into the market. This needs to be coupled with industrial policy whereby industry does a better job of investing in the trifecta of industrial productivity: investments in R&D, education and training, and new technology.

I am looking forward to discussing these important issues at the upcoming Science and Society 2013 conference at the University of Ottawa. There is an exciting agenda for the conference, and I'll be on a panel discussing "The Future of Fundamental Research in Canada."  In addressing the conference theme question of How can we understand and improve the interplay between science and society, and improve science policies for the future?, I will be speaking speak to concepts related to going From Ideas to Innovation: The Role of Colleges and Polytechnics is Supporting Canadian Applied Research.

02 October 2013

Toronto Vital Signs 2013 launched - going from analog to digital

Rahul Bhardwaj, president and CEO of the Toronto Community Foundation, yesterday launched the release of the 2013 Toronto Vital Signs report. The report offers an excellent look in the Toronto region and the basis for our future prosperity. This year's theme, "Reboot the logic, please," shows why Toronto is the fourth ranked most livable city in the world, but warns there is work to be done to ensure we continue our leadership position. There are issues to deal with - transit, housing, employment - that requires us to reboot our approaches. In the opening message, Bhardwaj states: "Yes, this logic reboot carries risk. But the real peril lies in staying the course. If we opt for the status quo, we risk becoming analog players in a digital world – left behind as a city of the past."

A compelling metaphor, and one germane to many aspects of the Canadian experience. Read the report; it's a good look at the drivers for social and economic prosperity.

George Brown College is the Lead Research Partner and a proud partner in the report.