Innovation isn’t just about science funding
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.