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Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: innovation

February 07

Innovation and Skills Redux

So, yesterday Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth released five (!) papers on innovation, skills, and a bunch of other things.  I’m sure there’s a lot of ink on these in today’s papers, mainly around proposals to raise the retirement age (which we actually did two years ago, except the Trudeau government reversed it, but now evidence-based policy FTW, as the kids say).  I’ll restrict myself to some brief thoughts about two areas in particular: innovation and skills

On Innovation:   I must admit I got a bit of a thrill reading page 9 of the report, in which the Council body-slams the innovation Minister’s ideas about geographically-based innovation “clusters”.  They’re polite about it, “applauding” the Minister for coming up with such a great idea, but then go on to say that they’ve actually read the literature and know what works, and it ain’t clusters.  Hilarious.

What do they propose instead?  Well, it’s something called “innovation marketplaces”.  What are those you ask?  Well, to quote the report they’re “centers of technology and industry activity that are developed and driven by the private sector. An innovation marketplace brings together researchers and entrepreneurs with public and private customers around a common business challenge. These marketplaces match innovation demand from corporations and governments with innovation supply from researchers and entrepreneurs. This matchmaking strengthens supply-chain relationships and the flow of information, thereby fueling further innovation.”

If you think that sounds super hand-wavy, you are not alone.  In practice, there’s some overlap with the ideas Minister Bains has been peddling for months (Artificial Intelligence!  Cleantech!) but these idea are more focussed on industry and less geographically-based, both of which are Good Things.  However, it still equates innovation with new product development, specifically in gee-whizzy tech areas, which is a Bad Thing.  (Non-gee-whizzy sectors get their due in a separate paper on growth; a Good Thing to the extent that at least the Council conceptually understands the difference between Growth Policy and Innovation Policy.  I’m yet to be convinced the Minister has such an understanding.)  So there’s some overlap in ideas but considerable differences in the kinds of programs that are supposed to get us there.

But the budget’s only a couple of weeks away.  How does this circle get squared?   Messily, I suspect.  But we’ll have to wait and see.

On Skills:  According to the report, everything is going to be solved by a new agency going by the godawful name “Futureskills Lab”.  As near as I can tell, this agency is going to be a lot like the Canadian Council on Learning was, only: i) more focused on skills than education (by “skills” they seem to mean tech skills – eight of the ten examples of skills used in the report are tech), ii) more focused on (industry-led) experimentation and dissemination and “what works” and iii) it’s also going to be handed the prize of finally sorting out all that Labour Market Information stuff that Don Drummond has been yelling about for years and no one trusts Statscan to get right.  (I kid….Don Drummond would never raise his voice).

OK, so…there’s nothing wrong with funding lots of experimentation on skills and training.  In fact, it’s a great idea.  Fantastic.  The over-focus on tech skills is <headdesk> inducing, but my guess is that reality will kick in after a year or two and we’ll get a broader and more sensible set of skills priorities.  And there’s nothing wrong with better Labour Market Information, though I’m not particularly convinced that adopting all of Drummond’s recommendations will bring us to some kind of Labour Market Nirvana. (Short version, which maybe I should elaborate in a future blog: what Drummond mostly wants is backward-looking, which is great for economic analysis, not especially helpful for job-seekers or students looking to specialize).

But why do we need a new institution to do all this?  ESDC could fund experiments and analyses thereof.  Statscan could do the LMI stuff.  What advantage does a new institution necessarily have?  I’m not saying there are no advantages: the Millennium Scholarship Foundation is an example of an arguably unnecessary institution which nonetheless was responsible for some pretty interesting policy and delivery innovations.  But the advantages are uncertain and not well-argued in the report.

And there’s another issue.  The Council is keen that FutureSkills Lab be collaborative.  Super collaborative.  Especially with the provinces.  They really like the whole Canada Institute for Health Information (CIHI) model.  Well, the thing is, the federal government did try something similar a decade ago.  It was called the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) – remember that? It was well-intentioned, but a political disaster because the feds set it up before actually talking to the provinces, leading the latter to essentially boycott it.  More to the point, CIHI works because it is responsible (in part) to the provinces, not just the feds.  If the Council recognizes the importance of this point, it is not evident in the report, which dances back and forth between saying it should “collaborate with” the Forum of Labour Market Ministers (i.e. with provincial governments) and saying it should be “accountable” to them.

I’ll stick my neck out on this one: “accountable to” will fly, “collaborate with” will not.  If the federal government is going to take up this idea from the council, it needs to make clear to the provinces within the next few days if not hours that this is going to be 100% CIHI clone, accountable to provinces and feds and not a federal creature collaborating with provinces.  If that doesn’t happen, regardless of the merits of more experimentation and better LMI data, this idea is going to be an expensive repeat of the CCL failure.  Federalism still matters.

November 10

Measuring Innovation

Yesterday, I described how the key sources of institutional prestige were beginning to shift away from pure research & publication towards research & collaboration with industry.  Or, to put it another way, the kudos now come not from solely doing research, but rather in participating in the process of turning discoveries into meaningful and commercially viable products.  Innovation, in other words (though that term is not unproblematic).  But while we all have a pretty good grasp on the various ways to measure research output, figuring out how to measure an institutions’ performance in terms of innovation is a bit trickier.  So today I want to look at a couple of emerging attempts to do just that.

First out of the gate in this area is Reuters, which has already published two editions of a “top 100 innovative universities” list.  The top three won’t surprise anyone (Stanford, MIT, Harvard) but the next three – Texas, Washington and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology – might:  it’s a sign at least that some non-traditional indicators are being put in the mix. (Obligatory CanCon section: UBC 50th, Toronto 57th and that’s all she wrote.)

So what is Reuters actually measuring?  Mostly, it’s patents.  Patents filed, Success rates of patents filed, percentage of patents for which coverage was sought in all three of the main patent offices (US, Europe, japan), patent citations, patent citation impact…you get the idea.  It’s a pretty one-dimensional view of innovation.  The bibliometric bits are slightly more interesting – percent of articles co-written with industry partners, citations in articles originating in industry – but that maybe gets you to one and a half dimensions, tops.

Meanwhile, the THE may be inching towards an innovation ranking.  Last year, it released a set of four “innovation indicators”, but only published the top 15 in each indicator (and included some institutions not usually thought of as universities in the list, such as “Wright-Patterson Airforce Base”, the Scripps Research Institute” and the “Danish Cancer Society”) which suggests this was a pretty quick rip-and-grab from the Scopus database rather than a long, thoughtful detailed inquiry into the subject.  Two of the four indicators, “resources from industry” and “industry contribution” (i.e. resources from industry as a percentage of total research budget), are based on data from the THE’s annual survey of institutions and while they may be reasonable indicators of innovation, for reasons I pointed out back here, you should intensely distrust the data.  The other two indicators are both bibliometric:  “patent citations” and “industry collaboration” (i.e. co-authorships).  On the whole, THE’s effort is slightly better than Reuters’, but is still quite narrow.

The problem is that the ways in which universities support innovation in an economic sense are really tough to measure.  One might think that counting spin-offs would be possible, but the definition of a spin-off might vary quite a bit from place to place (and it’s tough to know if you’ve caught 100% of said activity).  Co-working space (that is space where firms and institutions interact) would be another way to measure things, but it’s also very difficult to capture.  Economic activity in university tech parks is another, but not all economic activity in tech parks are necessarily university- or even science-based (this is an issue in China and many developing countries as well).  The number of students engaged in firm-based work-integrated learning (WIL) activities would be great but a) there is no common international definition of WIL and b) almost no one measures this anyway.  Income from patent licensing is easily obtainable in some countries but not others.

What you’d really want, frankly, is a summary of unvarnished opinions about the quality of industry partnerships with the businesses themselves, perhaps weighted by the size of the businesses involved (an 8 out of 10 at Yale probably means more than a 9 out of 10 at Bowling Green State).  We can get these at a national level through the World Economic Forum’s annual competitiveness survey, but not at an institutional level, which is presumably more important.  And that’s to say nothing of the value of finding ways to measure the various ways in which institutions support innovation in ways other than through industry collaboration.

Anyways, these problems are not insoluble.  They just take imagination and work.  If I were in charge of metrics in Ontario, say, I could think of many ways – some quantitative, some qualitative – that we might use to evaluate this.  Not many of them would translate easily into international comparisons.  For that to happen would require a genuine international common data set to emerge.  That’s unlikely to happen any time soon, but that’s no reason to throw up our hands.  It would be unimaginably bad if, at the outset of an era where institutions are judged on their ability to be economic collaborators, we allow patent counts to become the standard way of measuring success.  It’s vitally important that thoughtful people in higher education put some thought into this topic.

September 15

Innovation Policy: Are Universities Part of the Problem?

We’re talking a lot about Innovation in Canada these days. Especially in universities, where innovation policy is seen as a new cash funnel. I would like to suggest that this attitude on the part of universities is precisely part of Canada’s problem when it comes to Innovation.

Here’s the basic issue: innovation – the kind that expands the economy – is something that firms do. They take ideas from here and there and put them together to create new processes or services that fill a market need in a way that creates value (there’s public sector innovation too but the “creating value” thing is a bit trickier, so we’ll leave that aside for now while acknowledging it exists and matters a lot).

Among the many places the ideas come from are higher education institutions (HEIs). Not necessarily local HEIs: ideas travel, so Toronto firms can grab ideas from universities in Texas, Tromso or Tianjin as well as U of T. The extent to which they will focus on ideas generated locally has to do not only with the quality of the local ideas, but also with the way the ideas get propagated locally. Institutions whose faculty are active and involved in local innovation networks will tend to see their ideas picked up more often that those who do not, partly because contact with local firms generates “better” scientific questions and partly because they will have more people paying attention to their work.

But ideas are really only a part of what matters in innovation. Does the business climate encourage firms to innovate? What’s the structure of business taxation? What kind of management and worker skill base exists? What regulations impede or encourage innovation? What barriers to competition and new entrants exist? What kind of venture capital is available? Does government procurement work in favour of or against new products or services? All of this matters in terms of helping to set firms’ priorities and set it on a more-innovative or less-innovative path.

The problem is, all this stuff is boring to politicians and in some cases, requires directly attacking entrenched interests (in Canada, this specifically has to do with protectionism in agriculture telecoms and banking). It requires years of discipline and trade-offs and politicians hate discipline and trade-offs. If only there were some other way of talking about innovation that didn’t require such sacrifice.

And here’s where universities step in to enable bad policies. They write about how innovation is “really” about the scientific process. How it’s “really” about high tech industries of the future and hey, look at all these shiny labs we have in Canada, wouldn’t it be great if we had more? And then all of a sudden “innovation” isn’t about “innovation” anymore, it’s about spending money on STEM research at universities and writing cheques to tech companies (or possibly to real estate companies to mediate a lot of co-working spaces for startups). Which as far as I can tell seems to be how Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains genuinely approaches his file.

Think I’m exaggerating? Check out this article from Universities Canada’s Paul Davidson about innovation in which the role of firms is not mentioned at all except insofar as they are not handing enough money to universities. Now, I get it: Paul’s a lobbyist and he’s arguing his members’ case for public support, which is what he is paid to do. But what comes across from that article is a sense that for Universities , l’Innovation c’est nous. Which, as statements of innovation policy go, is almost Nickelbackian in its levels of wrongness.

I don’t think this is a universal view among universities, by the way. I note SFU President Andrew Petter’s recent article in the same issue of Policy magazine which I think is much clearer in noting that universities are only part of the solution and even then, universities have to get better at integrating with local innovation networks. And of courses colleges, by putting themselves at the more applied end of the spectrum, are inherently aware that their role is as an adjunct to firms.

Universities are a part – a crucial part, even – of innovation systems. But they are a small crucial part. Innovation Policy is not (or should not be, anyway) code for “industrial policy in sci/tech things universities are good at”. It is (or should be) about firms, not universities. And we all need to remember that.

September 06

Announcements

Guys!  I’ve got it solved!  This whole funding thing!

You know how Liberal MPs are taking up the entire back-to-school season with on-campus announcements of Strategic Investment Fund (SIF) money?  It’s annoying, right?  I mean this is money isn’t some “favour” delivered through hard work and pork-barrelling by the local MP.  It’s technocratically-determined funding decided upon by a professional public service.  And yet all the universities and colleges have to go through this rigamarole, saying “thank you” to the local MP, and having pictures taken that can be used ad nauseam in local media.

OK, I get it.  Politicians need to get “credit”, and it’s not just about personal political advantage (though I suppose that never goes amiss).  It’s important that the public knows how their money is spent and media “events” help with that process.  To that extent, it’s perfectly legitimate.   But why is it legitimate for some types of spending and not others?  Why do the feds get these heaps of publicity for a few hundred million dollars when provinces hand out over a billion dollars a month every year?

That’s not a novel observation on my part, or anything.  Everyone has had this discussion of course.  It hasn’t exactly passed unnoticed that announcements of capital projects (especially ribbon-cuttings) get more fanfare than announcements of operating grants. And there’s a too-smug, too-certain line that everyone knows about how “if only we could do ribbon-cuttings for operating grants” then politicians would give money for that, too.

Now, there’s at least some truth to this.  Relative to operating grants, universities and colleges have been getting more money for capital these past fifteen years or so.  And presumably the ability to get good press out of announcing such funding has at least some small role to play in it.

But do we really know that we can’t hold media events for operating grant announcements?  Or have we just never tried?

I mean, clearly, the fact that the money has already been announced is no barrier to getting media out to events.  Every last dime of SIF has already been announced weeks ago.  Hell, last week the Science Minister showed up at Humber College to re-announce changes to the Canada Student Loans Plan that had not only been announced five months ago but which had actually gone into effect four weeks previously.  Timeliness and novelty are clearly not the issue.

Some people might say: “ah, well, you can’t announce operating grants because they aren’t new.”  But this is small-time thinking.  There’s almost always a part of the funding that is new, even if it’s only 1 or 2%.  And what that money is funding changes quite a bit every year.  One year it might be buying RECORD LEVELS OF ENROLLMENT, and in another SIXTY NEW PROFESSORS AND A NEW CENTER FOR STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES.  Tie it in with some kind of re-announcement about new goals, multi-year agreements, whatever, and you’ve got yourself a bona fide news event.

Not a ribbon cutting, maybe, but a reason for provincial politicians and institutional officials to be pleasant to one another in public, to explain to the electorate what their money is buying, and have some photos taken.  And who knows?  If people are right that positive media is what begets more capital funding announcements, maybe it’ll help bring operating grants back up a bit too.

So come on, institutional government-relations types and provincial media-flack types.  It can’t be beyond your wit to organize some media for all that massive public investment.  Give it a try.  It can’t be any less legitimate than this interminable parade of SIF announcements to which we’re currently being subjected.

September 02

New Thoughts on Innovation Policy

A new book on innovation policy came out this summer from a guy by the name of Mark Zachary Taylor, who teaches at Georgia State.  The book is called The Politics of Innovation: Why Some Countries are Better Than Others at Science and Technology and to my mind it should be required reading for anyone interested in following Canada’s innovation debate.

First, things first: how does Taylor measure how “good” a country is at Science & Technology?  After all, there are lots of ways of measuring inputs to tech, but not many on the outputs side.  The measure Taylor selects is patents.  And yes, this is highly imperfect (though it does correlate reasonably well with other possible measures like multi-factor productivity), but Taylor doesn’t over-egg the data.  For most of the book, his interest is less in scoring countries and then using various types of regression analyses to come up with explanations for the scores; rather, he tends to group countries into fairly wide buckets (“Most innovative”, “mid-level innovative“, and “rapid innovators” showing rapid progress like Korea and Taiwan).  Canada – probably to the surprise of anyone who follows innovation policy in our country – comes up as one of the “most innovative” along with Japan, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland. This may either be a sign of us being too tough on ourselves, or Taylor being out to lunch (I’m a bit unsure which, to be honest).

But put that aside: what’s important about this book is that it provides a good, critical tour d’horizon of the kinds of institutions that support innovation (research universities, patent protection, etc.) and explicitly rejects the idea that “good institutions” are enough to drive innovation forward.  This seems to me to be quite important.  Much of the innovation commentariat loves playing the game of “look-at-that-institution-in-a-country-I-think-does-better-than-us-we-should-really-have-one-of-those” (think Israel’s government-sponsored venture capital funds, for instance).  The riposte to this is usually “yeah, but that’s sui generis, the product of a very special set of political/institutional factors and would never work here”.  And that’s true as it goes, but Taylor goes a bit further than that.

First, he focuses on how open a country is to both inward and outward flows of knowledge and human capital.  Obviously, higher education plays some role here, but on an economy-wide basis, the real question is: are firms sufficiently well-networked that they can effectively hire abroad or learn about market opportunities in other countries?  Taiwan and Israel have worked this angle very effectively, cultivating ties with targeted groups in the United States and elsewhere (my impression is that Canada does not do this in anything near the same level – one wonders why not).

Second, Taylor doesn’t just stop at asking the question of how nations innovate (answer: they design domestic institutions and policies to lower transaction & information costs, distribute and reduce risk, and reduce market failures in innovation).  He also tries to get at the much more interesting question of why countries innovate.  Why do Finns innovate like mad and Norwegians not?  Why Taiwan not Philippines?  Or, for that matter, why the US and not us?  Institutions play some role here, but it’s not the whole story.  Culture matters.

Or, in Taylor’s telling: perceptions of internal and external threat matter.  His argument is that everywhere, the urge to innovate is countered by the wailings of bereavement from those who lose from technological innovation.  In many countries, the political power of losers is sufficient to create a drag on innovation.  Only in places where the country feels an existential threat (e.g. Israel, Taiwan) do political cultures feel they have the necessary social license to ignore the losers and give the innovators free rein.   Taylor calls this “creative insecurity”.

I have to say I don’t find this last bit entirely persuasive.  The bit about losers having too much power is warmed-over Mancur Olson with a tech-specific focus (Taylor goes to some length to say it’s not, but really it is). and while the second part is a plausible explanation for  some places -Singapore, say – his attempt at formalization requires some serious torquing of the data (Finland cannot credibly be described as being under external threat) and/or some very odd historical interpretations (Taylor’s view that Israel was under greater external threat after 1967 than before it would probably not be accepted by many mid-east specialists).

That said, it arguably does explain Canada.  Our resource base gives us an undeniable cushion that other advanced countries lack.  We lack external threats (and since the late-90s we lack internal ones too).  Frankly, we’re just not hungry enough to be top-of-the-pack.  Even in parts of the country that should be hungry – Nova Scotia, for example – there’s simply not that much appetite to sacrifice dollars spent on social policy to make investments in innovation. See, for instance, the carping over Dalhousie’s participation in the MIT’s Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program.

Say it softly: as a country, we might not be cut out for this innovation stuff.  Sure, we like spending money on gee-whizzy tech things and pretending we’re at the cutting edge of this, that or the other, but it’s a long way from that to actually being innovative.  Innovation is tough.  Innovation causes pain and requires sacrifice.  But Canadians prefer comfort to sacrifice:  we can’t get rid of harmful dairy monopolies, our national dress is fleece, etc.

Anyways, read the book.  And have a great weekend.

August 29

Welcome Back

Morning everyone.

We’re back for another term.  I hope everyone’s summer went well.  Let’s get started.

First, a quick round-up of the major events since I was last in the Daily blog business: on August 1, the new Canada Student Grants program came into effect, with all grants now 50% larger than they used to be (the offsetting bad news, the loss of a whole bunch of tax credits, kicks in on January 1).   The big Ontario scheme doesn’t kick in this year, but the New Brunswick Tuition Assistance Bursary (TAB) started at the same time as the federal program.  There’s a new Minister for Advanced Education in New Brunswick who has been given a mandate to re-engineer the TAB so that it’s design isn’t quite so cockamamie; that’s great news, but no word yet on if/when/how such a re-engineering might take place.

The new government in Ottawa hasn’t quite left its hyperactive phase, and so the government has been conducting two big consultations of note this summer, one on innovation policy and one on science policy.  The Innovation policy increasingly looks to me like a go-nowhere exercise, mainly because the Minister himself seems to have a very difficult time distinguishing “innovation” from “glitzy tech things”. Universities, of course, won’t mind this policy confusion (and may indeed be actively abetting it) because, if the government is going to be handing out money for glitzy tech things they’re going to be pretty close to the front of the line, regardless of what happens to actual innovation.

(An aside: I don’t have time to get into this now, but absolutely everyone interested in innovation policy  – especially our esteemed Minister – needs to go out and buy Mark Zachary Taylor’s The Politics of Innovation.  I’ll come back to this book later this week but suffice to say it’s a fantastic and important read.).

The other big issue in Ottawa this summer has been the increasingly weird and disturbing management flame-out at the Canadian Institute of Health Research.  Other granting councils are also dealing with stable-ish budgets (last year’s budget boost was welcome but in real dollars budgets are still below where they were in 2009) and increasing application rates, which are leading to ever-decreasing project success rates.  But only CIHR has chosen to deal with these challenges by simultaneously changing the criteria of its main funding programs AND pilotinga whole new adjudication system whose raison d’etre appears to be to avoid every piece of known good practice in terms of evaluating scientific proposals.  I’m not an expert on this stuff, so I urge you to read someone who is: Jim Woodgett, the Director of Research for the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Institute (for instance, this piece  and this one too).  How CIHR President Alain Beaudet has kept his job through all this nonsense is frankly a bit of a mystery; but the Minister’s office now seems to be aware of the scale of the catastrophe and so a trip to the high jump may not be far off.

Overseas the big news is mostly in the UK (Brexit and the implementation of the Teaching Excellence Framework, subjects to which I’ll return over the next couple of weeks).  Hillary Clinton made a campaign promise to ensure that 85% of American students can attend a public university tuition-free, but it isn’t getting lot of press because almost nobody believes it’ll ever happen.  Still, we seem to be in a moment where governments (Ontario, Chile, the US) are increasingly interested in making higher education explicitly free for low and middle-income students.  We’ll see who else follows that trend in the next few months.

Finally, I have one small announcement to make with respect to this blog.  As y’all know, providing the reading public with expert commentary (well, commentary anyway) is a bit of a time sink.  But also, thanks to Statistics Canada’s cost-recovery policies, it’s a money sink as well.  I know many if not most of you dig this blog primarily for the data analyses – and I prefer writing data-pieces to think pieces – but the costs of obtaining that data are getting higher all the time. 

I’ve never really tried to monetize this blog the way Academica’s Top Ten does with its job posting thing; it seems like a hassle and it annoys some readers.  But equally, I can’t really justify blowing money on the blog either, and I need about $2500/year to get the data necessary to keep the interesting stats pieces coming.  So at some point in the next few weeks, I am going to launch a crowdfunding effort to raise that amount.  If you like the data work I do and think it’s valuable for policy discussions in Canadian higher education, please consider donating.   There will be tchotchkes.

That’s it.  Have a great term everyone.