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US also ponders role of basic research in innovation

September 28, 2009

We here in Canada aren’t the only ones fretting about the role of research in the innovation economy. A dialogue is ongoing among our neighbours to the south, and much of their discussion also informs our situation. And while government is largely absent from the Canadian debate, which is mostly left to academics, business leaders, commentators, and advisory groups, the American discussion is being forcefully led by President Barack Obama, whose speech in Troy, NY this week highlighted the importance of this issue to his administration. President Obama is demonstrating strong leadership in his endorsement for a solid foundation of basic R&D in the US economic recovery, and is urging Americans to support the research that occurs in universities and government labs as a key element of the new economy:

…We also have to strengthen our commitment to research, including basic research, which has been badly neglected for decades.  (Applause.)  That’s always been one of the secrets of America’s success — putting more and more money into research to create the next great inventions, the great technologies that will then spur further economic growth.

The fact is, though, basic research doesn’t always pay off immediately.  It may not pay off for years.  When it does, the rewards are often broadly shared, enjoyed by those who bore it — costs but also by those who didn’t pay a dime for that basic research.

That’s why the private sector generally under-invests in basic science.  That’s why the public sector must invest instead. While the risks may be large, so are the rewards for our economy and our society.  I mean, understand it was basic research in the photoelectric effect that would one day lead to solar panels.  It was basic research in physics that would eventually produce the CAT scan.  The calculations of today’s GPS satellites, they’re based on basic research — equations Einstein put on paper more than a century ago.  Nobody knew they’d lead to GPS, but they understood that as we advance our knowledge, that is what is going to help advance our societies.

When we fail to invest in research, we fail to invest in the future.  Yet, since the peak of the space race in the 1960s, our national commitment to research and development has steadily fallen as a share of our national income.  That’s why I set a goal of putting a full 3 percent of our Gross Domestic Product, our national income, into research and development, surpassing the commitment we made when President Kennedy challenged this nation to send a man to the moon.  (Applause)…

Aside from the injection of funds, which is obviously important, a stated goal of 3% of GDP for R&D is a signal to the public, academia, industry, and investors worldwide that the US is serious about leading the new economy. Simply outlining a policy stance that places science and innovation at the head of the economy creates an optimistic innovation environment.

Where are the Canadian leaders on this? Instead of a cohesive vision to unite Canadians, we get a mindnumbing stream of press releases trumpeting the government’s commitment to innovation through piecemeal investments in small, regional companies.



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