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Innovation isn’t just about science funding

June 1, 2010

Improving Canadian innovation is a major justification for the government’s recent investment in the Canada Excellence Research Chairs. According to Industry Minister Tony Clement, $200 million over the next ten years for world-leading scientists demonstrates a “commitment to ensuring Canada’s future economic growth by investing in innovation”.

But does world-class scientific research lead to increased innovation?

Investing in innovation is the big justification for dedicating large sums of money to a number of research funding programs. The Canadian Foundation for Innovation, for instance, is dedicated almost exclusively to funding scientific research infrastructure at post-secondary institutions. CIHR and NSERC, science funding agencies that each administer $1-billion research budgets, have specific innovation strategies to try to translate research results from the lab to the street. IRAP, the NRC’s major innovation program, spends $100-million annually to help companies grow through “innovation and technology”.

Clearly, there is a link between research and innovation, but it isn’t clear exactly what it is.

At the risk of undermining this blog’s raison d’etre, I’d like to suggest that encouraging researchers to be more innovative through increased funding is not likely to produce the innovation government is seeking.

The fact is, our researchers are already among the most innovative in the world. Successful research is, by its very nature, about innovation. New theories, new techniques, new discoveries – innovation is at the heart of successful academic research. And, according to recent high-profile reports, we’re among the best – the most innovative – in the world. Stable and sufficient funding will ensure that our researchers continue to be world-leaders in research innovation.

But that’s not really the kind of innovation the government is looking for when it talks about our “innovation gap”. Where we fall behind is in the translation of research into social, cultural, or commercial innovations.

And while I have immense respect for scientific researchers in this country, I’ve met only a handful who could comfortably span the whole innovation landscape, from bench to market. And even they are happier and more productive when they’re concentrating on their research.

Expecting researchers to produce innovative research and to translate it into the broader world is unrealistic. And giving more money to researchers isn’t going to change that.

So, how do we achieve this innovation?

Unfortunately, it isn’t obvious or clear. Unlike scientific research, social and commercial innovation isn’t a relatively linear process you can lay out in five year funding applications. It doesn’t require a highly-specialized skill set. It requires a broad skill set that involves creative thinking, communication skills, problem-solving, critical thinking, and cultural and civic understanding – all of which need to be applied to the varied stages of innovation development.

These are the attributes of successful entrepreneurs. These are also the attributes of a liberal arts and science education.

Unfortunately, with the increasing focus on innovation and competitiveness in a scientific and technological world, we increasingly demean the value of this sort of education. But if we look at innovation success stories, they are not the exclusive domain of scientists. Research in Motion was co-created by an engineer and a commerce graduate. Canada’s biggest pharmaceutical company, Biovail, was founded by someone without any post-secondary education, but who had the broad skill set necessary to start and develop the company. Tech entrepreneurs I meet are as likely to be history, philosophy, and economics graduates as computer scientists or engineers. Even a who’s-who of Canadian high-tech CEOs have made an explicit case for the importance of  liberal arts and science graduates in their industries.

Yes, we need to fund scientific research to ensure that we have a deep pool of innovation from which to draw. But translating this research into world-leading social or commercial innovation won’t happen if we leave it strictly to the scientists. Individuals trained in the social sciences and humanities bring an essential skill set to the process, and we neglect funding these areas at our competitive peril.

SSHRC shouldn’t be left to wither on the vine of research funding. Supporting strong and diverse research programs at our universities ensures that we are producing graduates that can contribute to all steps of the innovation process.

Combining world-leading research with the broad skill sets of a liberal arts education is essential to address our innovation gap. Increased trans-disciplinary research between science faculties and others – business, law, library science, arts – can help move research results out of the lab and into the broader world. These collaborations can be mutually beneficial for the researchers involved. And industry-academic partnerships need to move beyond collaborations between private and public labs working in the same space to include cross-sector collaborations – connect biomedical labs with development NGOs, say, or engineering departments with startup entrepreneur associations.

We need fresh thinking on innovation, and more ambitious thinking. We also need to be clear that innovation is a complicated process involving many players beyond the bright lights that produce the research.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. bbobley permalink
    June 2, 2010 17:06

    Thanks — this is very thought provoking. By the way, I looked at the SFU letter from high tech CEOS that you linked to. Do you know who compiled that list? Or when?

    • Rob Annan permalink*
      June 2, 2010 17:14

      The letter from the CEOs seems to date from 2000, during a battle about education funding – specifically in Ontario. I tried to find an “original” press release, but the best I could do was find it reprinted on a variety of academic websites, including SFU, Trent, McGill, among others. There was also a globe story detailing how the CEOs “released a statement”, but I couldn’t link to it since the Globe’s archive site is terrible…

  2. June 3, 2010 11:36

    Hi Rob! Thank you for those comments about the need for social science funding and its ilk and, I’m here to confess that I may have taken a liberty or two with your post in the discussion on my blog. Where you say “liberal arts and science education” I took you to mean both not either. As well, I’m a little curious about this comment: “Unlike scientific research, social and commercial innovation isn’t a relatively linear process you can lay out in five year funding applications.” I know that research applications require a relatively linear process be laid out but I was under the impression that created the same kinds of problems for scientists that artists encounter. (Arts funding applications become more like works of fiction as you try to answer detailed questions about a future event.) In any event, I heartily agree that we need a variety of approaches and perspectives as we become more innovative.

    • Rob Annan permalink*
      June 3, 2010 12:37

      Hi Maryse. I really enjoyed your blog post – in fact, it was perhaps more apt than you know. While I obviously don’t share Dr. Petsko’s illustrious accomplishments, I too arrived in “hard sciences” by way of the humanities. I hold both a PhD in Biochemistry from McGill and a BA in English Lit from Queen’s, and I really believe that my liberal arts education was a much better prelude to a research career than the more typical BSc. I was shocked to discover that so many of my fellow graduate students had such a poor grounding in what I considered the essential elements of my Arts undergraduate education: critical thought, effective writing, argumentation and logic. These are essential tools for any successful scientist, and we do a poor job of teaching them to science students. Even at the PhD level, too many students were simply following instructions as they always had. Our creative and innovative scientists seem to be born in spite of the system, not because of it. We encourage our science students to put their noses into the books instead of looking up to see the “big picture”, as you say. An arts education, on the other hand, is all about understanding the big picture.

      As to your question, even as I wrote the passage you quote, I knew it would raise eyebrows (mine not least). I certainly don’t mean to suggest that research projects proceed in a linear way – they certainly don’t. And I also don’t mean to suggest that researchers can predict five years out where their research will lead. What I was trying to capture was how, in retrospect, research projects look linear – even if the path differs from the one on the grant application. Even though results may be unexpected, they tend to lead from one to the next. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, are moving forward on several fronts at once, including research, marketing, financing, managing, etc. All of these areas are subject to pretty rapid changes of direction, and they are all interrelated – when one changes direction, the others usually have to change direction too. It’s a complicated process with lots of feedback from one area to the other. In short, in research each result dictates the next – whether expected or not – whereas in entrepreneurship (social or commercial), the process is less defined and more flexible.

      Does that make sense?

      Thanks for the feedback.

      • June 3, 2010 15:28

        Hi Rob! Synchronicity, it’s a beaut, eh? I should have guessed about your background. As for the argumentation, logic, critical thinking, and writing, i.e., lack of competence in these realms, somewhat sadly I have to agree. I also think there’s a difference when communicating with people who’ve focused on something quite narrowly to the exclusion of most other interests as they are unlikely to have access to metaphors and analogies for explaining ideas to people who don’t share a science education with them. A characteristic I think they use to great comic effect in The Big Bang Theory (if you know that show and I’m pretty sure you do).

        Your explanation of science, linearity, and business makes perfect sense to me. As always Rob, a stimulating encounter. I missed you when you were otherwise occupied. Regards, Maryse

  3. SpongeBob permalink
    June 7, 2010 08:24


    There is also a nice discussion about “Big” vs “Small” science:

    “Is bigger better?”, Paul van Helden
    EMBO reports (2010), 11, – 408, doi:10.1038/embor.2010.71

    Concerning the role of humanities, it is absolutely true that they can have an input in the innovation process itself, but they are also necessary in order that new knowledge and technologies should not clash with society. Of course, I take for granted that the whole idea is to build a better society, not just bigger returns for shareholders…

  4. joe permalink
    June 9, 2010 09:40

    What is also required is recognition that translational science (the “D” in “R&D”) requires deep pockets and usually cannot be performed by academic scientists. In the case of new medicines for instance, the first small clinical trial will cost several million dollars. Once upon a time, big Pharma would snatch up potentially innovative drugs based on preliminary in vitro or preclinical efficacy data. Nowadays, they expect a lot more value to be added before expressing interest. This is the domain of the biotech startups, but they still require significant sums of money to get products to a stage where they can be sold on to the big boys. We will have to make it much easier and more rewarding to set up these middle-men organizations to ensure that the best biomedical research in Canada is advertised to the most critical audience for its commercialization.

  5. Eric permalink
    June 10, 2010 08:35

    Canada’s innovation strategy can be described as: basic science funding on the hopes that some of the research leads to scientific discoveries, some of which may be of interest to the marketplace, some of which may be successfully commercialized.

    The Canadian science community is doing an effective job spending the billions injected into basic research and generating some discoveries. However, this ‘gap’ that is frequently discussed is merely a symptom of an unbalanced strategy. When you fund the supply side of the research equation and practically abandon the demand side, of course you will have a gap. Our strategy is flawed as it considers only the technology-push path of innovation and does little to support market-pull opportunities.

    To improve our innovation performance, we need to balance our research funding to support both basic research and market-led research.

  6. July 22, 2010 08:16

    One of the great failings of our universities is that they do not provide training to science and engineering students in the management of technological innovation, which would include how to effectively manage researchers, and technical entrepreneurship. Their is over 50 years of study in this field, but most scientists and engineers don’t even know it exists. Thus most science-based organizations, when looking for management training for their staff settle for general management training, which is not as targetted as R&D management training. This is a battle I have been fighting for around 40 years.

    In my experience university students with an entrepreneurial bent want this training, but it is not widely offered by our universities.


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