The Minister of State for Science and Technology recently launched a consultation process for its renewal of the federal Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) Strategy. Polytechnics Canada welcomed this consultation as an opportunity to address the challenges currently facing Canada’s innovation ecosystem.
Canada is at risk of falling behind globally on a broad set of issues that can be addressed with a new STI Strategy. More countries are overtaking Canada in R&D spending in the broader higher education sector, while our federal government’s R&D spending remains weighted predominantly towards universities. Further, Canada does not provide statistics on how many R&D researchers and technicians we have per million people, making it difficult to know where improvements can be made. Canada is falling behind in high-technology exports, and it is alone among developed countries to have a trade deficit in intellectual property receipts. As a result, Canada is sagging in world competitiveness rankings.
The key to addressing these challenges is to equip Canadians for the shift from the “knowledge economy” to the “know-how economy” in order to reduce our innovation lag and productivity gap. The demand-driven nature of polytechnic applied research is of central importance in addressing this challenge, and recent federal investments are a step in the right direction.
Our approach to the STI Strategy is underscored by three principles. First, innovation is not purely a scientific activity – it is an economic one. Second, different players in the innovation ecosystem are driven by different motivations depending on whether they conduct basic research, applied research and development (R&D), or commercialization. Third, we should focus on outcomes, not inputs, as a measure of success.
When discussing innovation, it is best to use the OECD definition of innovation as “the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (physical good or service), process, a new marketing method or a new organizational method in business practices, workplace organization, or external relations.”
Regarding the innovation process, the Jenkins Panel report noted that universities and colleges do not commercialize; companies do. For firms, innovation starts on the demandpull side of the table, not the idea-supply side. The vast majority of Canadian firms are small or medium enterprises (SMEs), and have difficulty committing resources to in-house R&D, in fact, of Canada’s 1.1 million SMEs, only 20,000 per year invest in R&D. Greater federal policy focus on Canada’s strength in advanced manufacturing as an enabler of other industrial sectors, is needed. This would allow firms to tap into the supply of polytechnic talent to help grow many SMEs into larger, successful Canadian companies.
While polytechnic talent and applied research should play a role in addressing these challenges, it is important that colleges and polytechnics not be “force-fit” into a pre-existing understanding of academic research. Demand-driven college applied research is motivated by building Canadian talent, not by driving discovery, nor by attracting world class talent. The applied nature of college research must be balanced with the need for discovery research.
With these approaches and challenges in mind, and based on the five questions the Government asked in its Consultation Paper, Polytechnics Canada has provided a number of suggestions on how the STI Strategy might be updated:
- Two key recommendations from the Jenkins Panel report should be acted on: program consolidation and the creation of an appropriate agency to fund R&D.
- Program consolidation should focus on commercialization and talent support for businesses focusing on innovation.
- More consideration should be given to the creation of a program similar to the long standing US Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR), which challenges innovative firms to solve public sector challenges.
- Federal policy should balance the prevailing “idea-push” dynamic of basic research with the “demand-pull” logic of applied research and commercialization.
- Programs need to differentiate between the intended outcomes of discovery research, applied research, and commercialization.
- Our understanding of “research excellence” should be adapted to the realities of the 21st century: we need to achieve excellence in both basic and applied research.
- Federal funding for applied research should be increased by re-allocating resources from undersubscribed federal R&D support programs towards new or existing programs that support college applied research, such as the College and Community Innovation Program (CCIP).
- Oversight of programs that support college research should be performed by people who understand the unique nature of college applied research.
- The CCIP should be made eligible for support from the Indirect Costs of Research Program (ICP).
- Programs should explicitly link Canada’s need for innovation talent with Canada’s current skills and labour market shortages.
Supports for undergraduate students in applied research should be increased, including through Tri-Council programs for R&D and talent creation. The way forward for designing an outcomes-based STI strategy that incorporates the differentiated motivations of all the players in the innovation economy, will be to take into account Canada’s industrial makeup in 2014, what other countries are doing in STI, and what best practices we can adopt and adapt to the Canadian context.