Higher Education Strategy Associates

Asleep at the Switch…

… is the name of a new(ish) book by Bruce Smardon of York University, which looks at the history of federal research & development policies over the last half-century.  It is a book in equal measures fascinating and infuriating, but given that our recent change of government seems to be a time for re-thinking innovation policies, it’s a timely read if nothing else.

Let’s start with the irritating.  It’s fairly clear that Smardon is an unreconstructed Marxist (I suppose structuralist is the preferred term nowadays, but this is York, so anything’s possible), which means he has an annoying habit of dropping words like “Taylorism” and “Fordism” like crazy, until you frankly want to hurl the book through a window.  And it also means that there are certain aspects of Canadian history that don’t get questioned.  In Smardon’s telling, Canada is a branch-plant economy, always was a branch-plant economy, and ever shall be one until the moment where the state (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here) has the cojones to stand up to international capital and throw its weight around, after which it can intervene to decisively and effectively restructure the economy, making it more amenable to being knowledge-intensive and export-oriented.

To put it mildly, this thesis suffers from the lack of a serious counterfactual.  How exactly could the state decisively rearrange the economy so as to make us all more high-tech?  The best examples he gives are the United States (which achieved this feat through massive defense spending) and Korea (which achieved it by handing over effective control of the economy to a half-dozen chaebol).  Since Canada is not going to become a military superpower and is extremely unlikely to warm to the notion of chaebol, even if something like that could be transplanted here (it can’t), it’s not entirely clear to me how Smardon expects something like this to happen, in practice.  Occasionally, you get a glimpse of other solutions (why didn’t we subsidize the bejesus out of the A.V. Roe corporation back in the 1960s?  Surely we’d be an avionics superpower by now if we had!), but most of these seem to rely on some deeply unrealistic notions about the efficiency of government funding and procurement as a way to stimulate growth.  Anyone remember Fast Ferries?  Or Bricklin?

Also – just from the perspective of a higher education guy – Smardon’s near-exclusive focus on industrial research and development is puzzling.  In a 50-year discussion of R&D, Smardon essentially ignores universities until the mid-1990s, which seems to miss quite a bit of relevant policy.  Minor point.  I digress.

But now on to the fascinating bit: whatever you think of Smardon’s views about economic restructuring, his re-counting of what successive Canadian governments have done over the past 50 years to make the Canadian economy more innovative and knowledge-intensive is really quite astounding.  Starting with the Glassco commission in the early 1960s, literally every government drive to make the country more “knowledge-intensive” or “innovative” (the buzzwords change every decade or two) has taken the same view: if only publicly-funded researchers (originally this meant NRC, now it means researchers in university) could get their acts together and talk to industry and see what their problems are, we’d be in high-tech heaven in no time.  But the fact of the matter is, apart from a few years in the 1990s when Nortel was rampant, Canadian industry has never seemed particularly interested in becoming more innovative, and hence why we perennially lag the entire G7 with respect to our record on business investment in R&D.

You don’t need to buy Smardon’s views about the potentially transformative role of the state to recognize that he’s on to something pretty big here.  One is reminded of the dictum about how the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.  Clearly, even if better co-ordination of public and private research efforts is a necessary condition for swifter economic growth, it’s not a sufficient one.  Maybe there are other things we need to be doing that don’t fit into the Glassco framework.

At the very least, seems to me that if we’re going to re-cast our R&D policies any time soon, this is a point worth examining quite thoroughly, and Smardon has done us all a favour by pointing this out.

Bon weekend.

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