Government Announces R&D Review
While I was generally positive about Budget 2009 and its support for Canadian R&D, I was skeptical (cynical, actually – it’s in my nature) about an abstract promise to perform a “comprehensive review of all federal support for R&D”. It promised to do so “in close consultation with business leaders from all sectors” and sought to “improve its contribution to innovation and economic opportunities for business”.
Yikes. No wonder I was cynical.
There were a lot of potential landmines in that announcement. Sure, we all agree that we’re doing an awful job of industrial R&D and translating our academic research into commercial success. But handing over the keys to our R&D policy to “business leaders from all sectors”?
Well, credit where credit is due. Yesterday, Gary Goodyear announced the details of the promised review, and he and his government should be applauded for its balance and focus.
The panel will conduct a comprehensive review “of all existing federal support for business R&D to see how this support could be enhanced to make sure federal investments are effective and delivering maximum results for Canadians [emphasis mine].”
So, basic research funding through the tricouncil will be untouched by the review. Which is good, since that isn’t where the problems in our innovation pipeline are to be found (there may well be all sorts of problems with basic research funding, but that’s a task for another panel…). It’s in effective knowledge transfer and business R&D where the problems seem to lie.
Government has instituted a huge number of projects to kickstart the business side of things. These include broad, general programs like SRED and IRAP as well as an enormous number of boutique programs that are sector-specific or aimed at individual regions. The tricouncils also have numerous commercialization and collaboration grants. There is no unity of purpose, however, and successes seem to be particular rather than general.
So it makes sense to review the state of affairs. To be honest, it will be a formidable challenge, given the tangle of individual programs (though some may overlap) run by different organizations without coordination.
But it also presents a formidable opportunity. A chance not just to determine what’s wrong, but to suggest how to make it right. Maybe we can get everyone on the same page, and create more unity of vision and approach. Maybe the panel can look overseas at innovative societies and try to import some good ideas. Maybe we can get at the root of the problem once and for all.
And maybe we’ll find out that the answer isn’t more programs or better programs, but rather increased economic competition for Canadian firms who have maybe been protected from having to innovate for too long.
The expert panel – an admirable panel, it is – is well placed to address these questions, and has an attractive balance of academics and business representatives. They will have an opportunity to consult widely with their constituencies and bring fresh ideas to the table. This represents a real opportunity to address innovation shortcomings, and we should take notice and take part.
Indeed, the business community is wasting no time. A coalition of Canadian business leaders and high-profile academic administrators is working to frame the discussion. The blue-chip membership released a set of recommendations yesterday (the timing not coincidental) for how it wants the government to act. My sense is that their plan includes too much of “more of the same” recommendations – expanding SRED, expanding tax credits for innovation investment – rather than any really innovative ideas.. I haven’t had a chance to study it extensively, though, and there may well be good ideas in there. At least they’re jumping into the discussion – and they’ll be sure to get a healthy airing with the review panel: UofT president and innovation gadfly David Naylor is a member of both groups.
So we know the business community will be participating in the discussion. What about the research community? If increased knowledge transfer between academia and industry is a major factor for increasing innovation, then surely we have some ideas to contribute.
I know I have lots of ideas, and I’ll be sharing them here. It’s important for other academics to jump into the discussion and contribute meaningfully. Not to protect “our” share of the pie, but to try to work productively with other stakeholders to build something that benefits us all. It benefited nobody for us to retreat to our so-called “ivory towers” or be satisfied that they’re not going to touch our NSERC money and simply let “them” figure it out. Let’s engage meaningfully. For too long, business and academia have lobbied for policy that excludes the other, suspicious of each other’s motives. Here we can try to get on the same page and work together.