16 December 2014

Industry-Academic partnerships have a role to play in R&D

While decrying the imposition of business into the science and technology (research) endeavours in the country, many conveniently ignore a few basic facts. Canada spends more per capita on public spending for research and development (R&D) than other G8 countries, yet we are the lowest for business spending on R&D. We have an enviable record of invention and publication, yet one of the worst records on innovation. Compounding the issue is that we do not have the GDP to support unfettered research into anything and everything. We must make choices.

In 2012 the Council of Canadian Academies published the Expert Panel Report on the State of Science and Technology in Canada (on which I had the pleasure of serving), which found that:
  • Canada is among the 5 leading countries in 7 of 22 fields, and among the 10 leading countries in an additional 14 fields.
  • With 0.5 per cent of the world’s population, Canada accounted for 4.1 per cent of research papers in 2005-2010 (7th in the world)
  • However, Canada holds only 1.7 per cent of patents
  • In 2010 Canada had a negative balance of nearly $5 billion in royalties and licensing revenues
There is much to be celebrated about Canada’s world leading basic research. We need more focus on translating this research into practical application for social and economic good. Our negative balance in IP – one of the worst records in the world – should be alarming to any Canadian. Successive expert panels have all said 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 research.

Well-funded basic research is necessary, but not sufficient for a functioning innovation economy. Countries like Canada, with our economy so dependent on resource extraction industries, need to start adding value to the raw resources we extract so we are less dependent on things like the price of oil. Basic research with little or no focus on application or commercialization becomes just one more example of how Canada exports raw commodities (ideas) without adding value (commercialization of these ideas). We can no longer afford this.

Integrating industry within the value chain of research and development means that we have an academic culture oriented toward applying basic research, when and where this is applicable. This enables industry to have easy access to our university, polytechnic and college basic and applied research capacity to help create social and economic value. Where ideas emerge that are ready and can be taken to market, we need industrial receptivity to make this happen. This requires a corresponding receptivity in our publicly funded research organizations to working with industry.

The new Science Technology and Innovation Strategy strikes a balance between basic and applied research, encouraging an ecosystem approach to innovation. This means fostering partnerships among our universities, polytechnics and colleges and industry to spur industry R&D spending and the emergence of inventions into the market. For example, Polytechnics and Colleges like George Brown work with many university scientists, helping them to get PhDs, patents, publication and products out the door, just as easily as we work with industry to get new products and services to market.

Innovation intermediaries are needed to fix what is broken in our innovation system. This requires partnerships – not partisanship – and a focus on making choices about where we invest as a country. Building the next generation of scientists, workers and business leaders requires hard work and cooperation. We have the foundation; let’s build on it together.

05 December 2014

Federal Government Launches new Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy

Prime Minister Stephen Harper yesterday launched the much anticipated new Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy. Seizing Canada's Moment: Moving Forward in Science, Technology and Innovation 2014 is a comprehensive and significant update to the 2007 Science and Technology Strategy. The new Strategy recognizes the idea to invoice continuum that is necessary for vibrant economies: world leading basic research linked to fruition in business innovation and social and economic benefit for all Canadians.

Receiving strong recognition in the new Strategy in the role of innovation intermediaries such as colleges and polytechnics. As the press release of Polytechnics Canada states:
The Strategy now includes an ecosystem approach to innovation which will lead to long-term economic benefit for Canada. It appropriately credits the diverse players in Canada's innovation ecosystem for their contributions: world-leading research universities, innovation intermediaries such as our polytechnics and colleges, and firms that are commercializing research and inventions.
This is a hugely significant approach.  Seizing Canada's Moment references the Jenkins Panel work in ensuring that there is a smoother path from invention through to innovation, both for our world leading universities and Canadian industry. The four priority areas of 2007's Strategy are reaffirmed, as reiterated in the Council of Canadian Academies report the State of Science and Technology 2012 (on which I had the pleasure of serving), with some expansion, detailed below. Fundamentally, our economy cannot prosper if we do not have both academic and industrial productivity. This means ensuring that we focus public R&D spending on national priorities, support the development of ideas to realize market success (academic productivity), while supporting business innovation (industrial productivity). With Canada spending more per capita on HERD than other countries, but with BERD lower, we cannot sustain this lop-sided approach to S&T. The new Strategy gets this balance right.

The 2007 Strategy set the stage for a strong focus on the country's strengths in research and development, or science and technology as it is often referred to. It paved the way for enhanced investment in basic research in our world leading laboratories. That Strategy also initiated the College and Community Innovation Program (CCIP), which saw college and polytechnic applied research recognized as a viable component of the innovation ecosystem.

There are a couple of key updates included in Seizing Canada's Moment. First is the creation of three new pillars: People, Knowledge, and Innovation. The second is a refreshed articulation of sector priorities.

The Pillars: Including Innovation as a key pillar is perhaps the most significant update. This pillar explicitly recognizes the benefit of linking ideas to invoice, or concepts to commercialization. This is not simple jingoism. Successive expert reports have articulated our excellence in basic research but our lack of business innovation. The Innovation pillar recognizes the value of the innovation ecosystem, of supporting world leading research and its fruition into social and economic value. It is worth quoting this in full:
[Seizing Canada's Moment] will also seek to close the persistent innovation gap that has hindered the transfer of ideas from the laboratory to the factory floor and the store shelf. The Strategy will also encourage businesses to work with partners in the innovation system, including by making Canada’s world-class research infrastructure, expertise and researchers available to them. It will encourage scaling up successful programs and consolidating program offerings to improve access and increase impact. The Strategy also emphasizes the need for Canadians to protect their intellectual property and enhances Canada’s access to global markets. (p 2)
The bottom line here is that where we spend more per capita on basic research than the rest of the world, we do not have the GDP to support unfettered research into anything and everything. We must set priorities. We also need to staunch the flow of Intellectual Property (IP) and realize this value to those that funded the R&D in the first place: the Canadian taxpayer (Canada has the largest negative IP balance of any other country).

Sector Priorities: The new Strategy recognizes the priorities from 2007's Strategy, while adding Advanced Manufacturing and a focus on things like additive manufacturing (3D printing) and disruptive technologies. Agriculture has also been added to the environment area. Both of these are overt recognition of the importance of the inputs to a resilient economy: the ability to make and/or produce what our society needs close to home. Also included in this area (as it was in 2007) is a focus area on food and food systems. George Brown College is very active in supporting this important sector through our Food Innovation Research Studio (FIRSt), which is supported by a College and Community Innovation Program Technology Access Centre grant. Demand from industry for our services is so great in the food area that we are working on expanding our capabilities in this important area of the economy.

In addition we have some sound principles: Focusing on Priorities; Encouraging Partnerships; and Enhancing Accountability. The Partnerships principle is particularly important, as it recognizes the very real need to link the "business, academic, and public sectors both at home and abroad are essential to assuring world-class Canadian successes and to accelerate the pace of discovery and commercialization in this country. The cost, complexity and pace of scientific achievement demand the creation of smart partnerships, through which the unique capabilities, interests and resources of various stakeholders can be brought together for greater success." This principle will lead to greater academic and business innovation and productivity.

Seizing Canada's Moment reaffirms the role of federal government support to the S&T value chain - there is a good graphic on page 15 that illustrates these supports. A good example of this is George Brown College's Green Building Centre, which received support from the Federal Economic Development Agency of Southern Ontario (FedDev). The Green Building Centre was recently officially opened by the Honourable Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario) and Bernard Trottier, Member of Parliament for Etobicoke-Lakeshore. It is through support like this that Canada's colleges, polytechnics and universities can be oriented to fostering business innovation.

There is much to be celebrated in Seizing Canada's Moment: Moving Forward in Science, Technology and Innovation 2014. This is a strong statement on the value of Canadian S&T, and addresses very well the challenges to fostering greater business innovation for social and economic productivity. Good for the federal government for getting this right; the new Strategy was definitely worth the wait.

In the days and weeks ahead there may be those that will decry this new approach to science, technology and innovation. Don't listen to these voices, for they are purveyors of the past. Instead, look to the future for ways on which we can build on what makes Canada great, and how we can work together to make it greater. After all, it is much harder to build than it is to tear down.