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Thursday Roundup

January 13, 2011

My method of blogging has changed considerably in the almost two years I’ve been doing this. Where I once used this blog to point out interesting and valuable articles or thoughts posted elsewhere on the web, I found myself doing so less and less often, instead using the blog to flesh out my own thoughts on issues like the long-form census debacle or on the directionlessness of the NRC. Because of this, I blogged less often and felt the posts had to carry more weight.

It occurred to me yesterday that this evolution was accidental and almost surely due to my use of Twitter. Now, instead of posting interesting articles here every day or two, I send out a quick “tweet” and that’s it. It took me a while to get on the twitter bandwagon but I’ve become a fan, finding it a useful tool to find and share interesting articles on the web (you can find me on twitter here). However, it has limitations – first, many people don’t bother with it. Second, while it allows me to point out interesting articles, it limits my ability to comment on them, which is the great fun of blogging. And finally, there is limited scope for the conversation that can occur in the comments section of the blog, which is a great reward.

So, today – a blast from the past. A few articles that I think are interesting. Yes, I’ve already tweeted them, but I haven’t had the opportunity to put a “Researcher Forum” spin on them. And, more importantly, I haven’t had the opportunity to hear what you think about them. So enough metablogging. Here it is, your Thursday roundup:

– Nassif at Piece of Mind continues his really stellar work with an “investigative report” (!) of how NSERC allocated its allotment from the last Federal Budget. NSERC received an increase of $13M, of which $8M wasn’t earmarked. It was assumed to be destined for the Discovery Grant (DG) program or other non-targeted programs. Alas, unconfirmed reports suggest that this money didn’t go to the general DG program, but to a variety of targeted programs, including the CERC program, Discovery and Innovation Frontiers program, and to Discovery Grant Accelerators. This last program is designed to encourage excellence among DG holders, but are largely allocated “in the areas that are directly related to the priorities of the federal government..”. This is not encouraging news – I think targeted research funding is important and has its place. But this report – if true – makes clear that it isn’t simply the government that prefers targeted funding to basic research support: it’s the funding agencies themselves.

– Beth at The Black Hole has a nice article about how research can get caught up in politics – in this case, the Republican Congressional Majority leader Eric Cantor asking the US public to scour the National Science Foundation’s database for wasteful research funding. A bunch of cranks with too much time on their hands deciding on the scientific merit of peer-approved research. Alas – politics is politics, and Rep. Cantor no doubt holds his head up high, knowing that fiscal probity and accountability are unassailable qualities. It’s a reminder that researchers of all stripes need to do a better job of explaining what we do and how and why it’s important. Outreach and Knowledge Transfer.

– University Affairs has a nice feature by John Lorinc describing the current challenges re. innovation in Canada. By and large a summary of where things stand in Canada, it offers a variety of viewpoints from various critics across the country. There are a few interesting tidbits, such as the idea that we’re perhaps too obsessed with “science-driven inventions” and not enough with innovations that improve productivity. It describes the advantages of the so-called “lean start-up”, a low-capital approach to start-up development. Ideal for the tech sector, it’s hard to see how you launch a manufacturing or biotech company without intensive capital, so this approach seems limited. Most disturbingly, however, is the section that suggests that our innovation problems are simply due to the fact that we’re Canadian and are therefore not innovative:

For many years, William Polushin has taught a core international business undergraduate course at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. Each year Mr. Polushin (who’s also founding director of the Desautels program for international competitiveness, trade and innovation) polls his students about their attitudes towards entrepreneurship and innovation by asking whether they see themselves as the next Bill Gates – in other words, as individuals who will come up with an innovation that could be a game-changer. Year after year, the response rate is consistent: only about 10 percent say they see themselves in this kind of role. By comparison, at a recent conference on North American competitiveness in Mexico City, he asked the students in the audience to raise their hands if they saw themselves running their own businesses in the future. “Well over half put up their hands,” he says.

This would be funny if it wasn’t also undermining its own point. In Mexico, innovation equals running your own company. In Canada, innovation means being the next Bill Gates. In a class of probably 200 students, if 20 of them believe that they will “come up with innovation that will be a game-changer”, that’s pretty darn good. Maybe we need to do a better job of defining innovation before getting too worked up about exactly what it is we’re failing at.

– The Edmonton Journal has an interview with innovation maven Peter Hackett, former VP Research at the NRC and former CEO of a now-defunct endowment fund called Alberta Ingenuity. I saw him speak at the CSPC last year, and there’s no doubting his energy and passion for innovation solutions. I think he makes two very good points:

  1. governments should stay out of venture capital. Once government got involved, VC investment became primarily concerned with the associated tax advantages instead of the companies involved. It complicated the game.
  2. we currently fund and support innovation by profitable, established companies, through IRAP, SRED, etc. instead of small high-growth companies. This is backwards.

This second point I can speak to personally – I have worked with numerous startups trying to access government support. The government and its associated agencies seem to have no idea how companies are born (stay tuned for a future blog post about organizations that support start-ups by offering $80 breakfasts with speakers from major accounting firms…).

– Finally, a warning from Nature (the magazine, not Mother…). Colin Macilwain points out that research funding has weathered the economic crisis relatively well in countries around the world. But stop the celebrations, he says, because funding for universities and teaching is being hit hard – especially so in Britain. And it is impossible to separate research from our universities: “the idea that research will prosper while teaching and learning decay is a dangerous fallacy”. He describes how the UK science establishment protected science only by “eviscerating public support for university teaching”. I’m not sure why – it may be another symptom of the growth of “epistemological populism“, which clearly has no need for universities – but cutting support for undergraduate education seems to be just fine with the public. Macilwain closes with a warning:

China and India… are building universities from the ground up, with a firm emphasis on student education as their bedrock of energy and ideas. In the United Kingdom and elsewhere, these foundations are being demolished, and students drowned in debt, to keep researchers’ grants flowing. It can only end badly, and more in the scientific establishment should have the courage to say so.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 13, 2011 09:39

    I like the idea of also sharing links on the blog. While I’m a big fan of Twitter for this function, 140 chars doesn’t allow you much space to tell us WHY you think we should read the linked article.

    And a post like this one also helps keep some of us roughly up to speed on the big issues even if we don’t read all the details.

    BTW, I also noticed that non-comparable question in the piece on students attitudes to innovation. You can be interested in running your own business without thinking that business will be a game changer.

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