I’m getting some worrying vibes from the new federal government. It’s nothing I can directly put my finger on (other than some annoying Ministerial tweets last week which seemed to claim that any money put into PSE infrastructure is ipso facto about “innovation”) but I get the sense that the new government is in danger of making some real mistakes with respect to innovation policy. Specifically, I’m worried that in the rush to repudiate the Harper legacy in all things science, they may end up with an innovation policy that takes us back to the naïve 1990s.
What do I mean by this? Well, in the late 1990s, when the Chretien government began seriously investing in research (after having initially slashed the bejesus out of it in the 1995 Budget), their rationale went something like this: growth requires innovation, research is the wellspring of innovation, therefore:
$ to universities for research → a miracle occurs → productive high-tech economic future
And on that not very sophisticated basis, billions were spent.
Now, without denying some good came from this, I think it’s fair to say that this is a pretty limited view of how innovation works. For one thing, there’s an implicit suggestion that innovation is about “new discoveries” being turned into “new products”. And while that is one type of innovation, it is far from the only one. What about process innovations or business model innovations, to name but two? Why focus on the “big breakthroughs” when so many incremental innovations are possible? Why focus on only one part of the value chain (and possibly not a part Canada is particularly good at) when there is value in so many others?
To put this more bluntly, to assume that basic research is the only type of research an innovation policy should fund is crazy. Serious countries understand this. It’s the reason, for instance, that Germany, besides funding its universities and the Max Planck institute, also funds the Frauenhofer Institutes, which is one of the world’s greatest performers of applied research.
Over the course of the last few years there have been many complaints that the Harper government focused too much on applied research. True, all granting councils (but especially CIHR) were pulled in the direction of having grantees justify their funding in terms of “immediate benefit” and finding commercial co-partners, etc, and for the most part this idea of injecting some “appliedness” into basic research funding was bad policy. But the fact is that the actual amount we spend on research which is exclusively applied in nature – that is, Frauenhofer type-stuff, or programs like the Industrial Research Chairs – is actually pretty small. The revamp of the National Research Council was a stab in a Frauenhofer direction – albeit a somewhat clumsy stab, with over-inflated expectations of quick success. But now even that’s been thrown into question, the revamp now “suspended” pending the outcome of a review of the government’s review of its basic science policies.
To be clear, it’s not that the government has yet made any definitive false steps. But rhetorically it seems to be backing itself into a corner in terms of thinking of innovation exclusively in terms of basic research plus maybe funding some exciting business/university co-location spaces (an idea which I think we could also describe as being less-than-fully-baked, as I explained back here. That would be a bad mistake. What Canada needs is a full-spectrum innovation policy, one which doesn’t put all its eggs in the new discoveries/new products basket.
Or, to put it another way: yes to basic research, but stools need more than one leg.