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Research policy odds and sods

June 22, 2010

A number of interesting bits related to science policy have been sitting in my to-do box for a week or two. Here’s the highlights:

1. I recently posted an argument in favor of liberal arts education as a key element in addressing our “innovation gap”. Thankfully, liberal arts programs are not under siege nor are they in danger of disappearing. At least, that’s the conclusion of Maclean’s writer Carson Jerema who admonishes us right in the piece’s title: “Relax, the liberal arts aren’t going anywhere“. He cites StatsCan data that shows, despite numerous demographic changes at Canadian universities, the proportion of undergraduate students enrolled in social sciences and humanities has barely changed since 1992.

2. A couple of thought-provoking pieces on Canadian innovation have appeared in the Globe and Mail. The first piece, by social media and start-up consultant Mark Evans, reiterates the consensus that we’re good at inventions, but fail at commercialization. He suggests that our main failure is that we don’t think globally – we feel the need to succeed here before taking on the world. Given the limited size and scope of our market, this in needlessly limiting.

The second piece, by Roger Martin (Dean of Rotman School of Management and Chair of the Institute of Competitiveness and Prosperity), suggests we too often confuse innovation with invention. He reminds us that innovation is “consumer-driven”, either producing something of greater value at equal cost, or of equal value at lower cost. We do a great job of funding invention, but a poor job of funding innovation. Unlike most of the discussion around Canadian innovation, Martin suggests four ways policy can help improve innovation:

  • Designing innovative educational programs connecting inventors who care about innovation with business people wanting to transform inventions into consumer-relevant innovations. These programs would also involve innovation financiers; public funding could even be available for winning innovations.
  • Ensuring that we develop both the hard science skills and “softer” skills that enhance communication, consumer understanding and team building.
  • Recognizing that necessity is the mother of both invention and innovation – and ensuring that our markets are intensely competitive to pressure our firms to look for ways to add consumer value to their products and processes.
  • Broadening our financing of innovation within existing companies. For example, we should loosen the definition of “fundable R&D,” which is currently far too tight. None of the success stories described above would have qualified for financing of the innovations that made them world leaders.

3. Finally, Dave at The Black Hole discusses his recent participation in a British panel discussion about the role of science in public policy. His summary echoes many of the suggestions floated at the Canadian Science Policy Conference this fall:

  • Create sabbaticals in Parliament for early-career researchers, providing real-world experience of how policy works and building bridges between politicians and scientists. The UK already has such a program, which seems to be popular.
  • As Preston Manning urged, scientists need to understand how analysis and decision-making differ between scientists and politicians. Scientists may focus intently on a single research question, withholding judgment until the loose ends are tied up. Politicians are generally engaged in a multitude of tasks, and can’t always afford to wait until all the data is in before taking action. Scientists seeking to influence policy need to understand this.
  • Canada needs a political advocacy group akin to the AAAS.
  • Political engagement is usually performed by individual researchers, with their colleagues and institutions often unaware of their activity. This prevents a coordinated approach and precludes the opportunity for colleagues to learn from their more politically-engaged couterparts.
4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 22, 2010 15:45

    Hi Rob! What a day! I caught this posting and your comments about innovation after watching the US govt. webcast on innovation. Unfortunately, the full webcast is 4.5 hours (ouch!). As for the humanities/liberal arts discussion, the stats. surprise me especially since a very prominent humanities academic Martha Nussbaum raised an alarm in a Globe & Mail article by John Allemang about humanities and the focus on funding education that “can be taken to the bank.” ( Not sure what to make of it all at this point. Cheers, Maryse

    • Rob Annan permalink*
      June 23, 2010 06:47

      Wow – 4.5h of innovation discussion? Thank goodness there are bloggers like you who tackle the yeoman’s task of watching and summarizing for us!

      I had seen the Nussbaum article in the G&M and had also been a bit surprised re. the Maclean’s article. As the Maclean’s author points out, the numbers are a few years old, so maybe things have changed (though I doubt they would change that much, that quickly). Personally, I suspect the different opinions may be based on different perspectives. Nussbaum may well be looking at the humanities “from the top-down” rather than “bottom-up”, ie. funding for research, hiring of faculty, recruitment of graduate students, etc. Maclean’s is looking at undergraduate enrolment. Much of the most recent hand-wringing has been about how the soft sciences and humanities were shut out of CERCs, which are specifically targeted to fund research, not teaching. Of course, there are major concerns about the quality of teaching in the humanities, especially given the increase in the number of sessional and non-tenured university lecturers. But my sense is that this is more about SSHRC vs. CIHR/NSERC than educating undergraduates, which – sadly, now as always – is usually not much more than an afterthought.

  2. Jim permalink
    June 23, 2010 15:17

    We have a slew of research advocacy groups – Research Canada, AUCC, AFMC, HCCC, ACAHO, to name just five in health research. The problem is that they all represent subtle and not-so-subtle distinctions in policies and stakeholders resulting in multiple, conflicting voices in Ottawa (which simply hears cacophony). There are multiple agencies and policy think tanks in the USA but they appear more coordinated and have clear demarkations. Perhaps the first challenge for Canada is not to create yet another policy group but to form a unified and coherent body that works towards the common good. I highly doubt we’ll see it soon given the in-fighting and competition between institutions but there is always reason for hope.


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