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Ignatieff’s economic plan thin on research

September 22, 2009

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff is delivering a speech today to the Toronto Board of Trade in which he will provide “his economic vision for creating long term economic growth through strategic, targeted investments in the new economy and revitalizing Canada’s industrial heartland” (according to the party’s website). The prepared text contains a number of bons mots, a few new details, but is mostly a rhetorical blasting of Stephen Harper.

Here’s the section of the speech where Ignatieff addresses R&D spending:

Of the thirty major world economies, we rank thirteenth in terms of expenditure on Research and Development. That percentage has fallen since the Conservatives took office. They have actually cut funding to our research councils.

A Liberal government will do more, not less, for our innovators and researchers.

Nous allons promouvoir l’innovation et la croissance dans tous les secteurs de notre économie, y compris le secteur minier, le secteur manufacturier, la forêt et l’agriculture. Parce que même dans nos domaines traditionnels, nous devrons savoir innover pour prospérer.

We will offer incentives for small and medium businesses to hire and train workers, especially young workers hardest hit by unemployment.

We’ll make a priority of manufacturing research and commercialization, to help our businesses bring new products and new technologies to market.

We’ll tackle the challenges in our venture capital markets, to drive more private investment to Canadian biotech and high-tech entrepreneurs.

And we’ll help manufacturers invest in plant and machinery, to improve their productivity.

So, Ignatieff criticizes the Harper conservatives for cutting the research council budgets, but makes no promise to reinstate or increase their support. Instead, he promises to increase research spending in the mining, manufacturing, forestry, and agricultural sectors.

The other “promises” here show that the Liberals have read the reports describing the challenges to Canada’s “innovation system”, but they don’t really offer much in the way of concrete solutions. Surely the details remain forthcoming. But even at the rhetorical level, Ignatieff has nothing to say about the importance of research and development at universities, government, and in industry – apart from Canada’s traditional resource sectors mentioned above.

So what role does R&D play in Ignatieff’s vision for Canada’s future? Is it to simply become more sophisticated hewers of wood and drawers of water? Can we not do better than this?

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