Science is necessary but not sufficient for innovation

Originally featured in The Hill Times: Research and Innovation Policy Briefing

An inclusive talent strategy for innovation must include
polytechnics and college

Nations need to have well-articulated strategies addressing science, innovation, competitiveness and productivity. Confusing or conflating these distinct but complementary goals is a recipe for underperformance.

And, sadly, Canada underperforms where innovation is concerned. We need to take a closer look at how we develop and fund innovation talent in Canada to change this dubious record.

While we have significantly funded science excellence with globally recognized results over several decades, this has not translated into innovation outcomes that increase national competitiveness and productivity.

What exactly is the problem?

Canada ignores the complementary roles played by all the actors in the innovation ecosystem and weakens the collaboration that should occur across the ecosystem. Specifically, Canada’s innovation performance is not optimal due to the lack of policies and programs that strongly support applied research and industry demand for innovation.

Canada has concentrated primarily on the input of ideas as the spark for innovation, instead of fostering an innovation economy that responds to demand for ideas, demand for solutions and consumer or market demand for new products and services. Despite new funds for innovation in the 2017 federal budget, the government is facing renewed pressure to increase its support to fundamental science.

Yet Canadian firms and employers clamour for more highly qualified and skilled people who know how to build products and services; who know how to find new markets for high value Canadian products; who raise new capital; who know how to unlock the benefits of new technology for firms and organizations.

The wording in the government’s own innovation and skills plan, recognizes that we need to harness all of our talent, and even import more tech talent, to achieve growth. But now is the time for investment, not more intentions.

This means investing in young talent from polytechnics and colleges, as well as universities. It means investing both in those who create the concepts and those who can work with industry to carry them out and scale them up.

Employers have signalled the need for innovation know-how through countless surveys that detail the skills gap and mismatch in Canada. Navigating employers to made-in-Canada talent should be a first priority for the federal government when considering how to build an adaptable and resilient workforce that knows how to innovate.

This is not pitting universities against polytechnics and colleges—this is saying innovation can’t happen without all the players engaged as full partners. Simply put, for talent creation in a 21st century workforce, the unequal treatment of college learners and apprentices must change. They, too, have vital contributions to make.

Today’s innovation process is far more collaborative than ever before. Interdisciplinary teams of engineers, PhDs, technicians, technologists and tradespeople are all working together towards common objectives and the grand challenges the country faces.
    
Gone are the days of white lab coat PhDs doing R&D in silos—interdisciplinary collaboration is key and innovation is a team sport. Canada can’t afford to leave any players in the innovation ecosystem on the bench. Canada urgently needs a truly inclusive talent strategy for innovation. Let us widen the narrow and hierarchical thinking around “best and brightest.” “Best and brightest” can no longer be attributes we seek only from the science or research community; it should apply to all professions and all vocations.

Right now, federal research granting council programs for R&D and talent creation are solely focused on graduate and post-graduate students. Worse, innovation internship programs for postsecondary students are limited to graduate students only. However, as outlined in the Jenkins Report, the combined contribution to in-firm R&D by individuals who hold technician and technologist designations, along with those who hold Bachelor’s degrees from colleges and universities, outstrips the combined contributions of individuals who hold Master’s degrees and PhDs.

The government needs to look at the evidence.

Since the 1990s, the federal government has committed to and grown its support for higher education R&D. Today, this annual spending stands at $3.1-billion per year. That’s a good thing.

Colleges and polytechnics, however, may only access one permanent research granting council program worth $53-million annually. Put another way, colleges and polytechnics access only around 1.7 per cent of total federal support for higher education R&D. This has to change.

The time has come for federally-funded research talent programs to be more inclusive of what employers need and to encourage support for undergraduates, technology students and skilled trades students. If we want a truly innovative economy, Canada has to harness all of its talent.

Why would we want to do otherwise?

Nobina Robinson is CEO of Polytechnics Canada, a national alliance of Canada’s leading polytechnics and colleges and a member of the Jenkins Panel that reviewed support for federal business R&D programs.