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.

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