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February 27

Can Ottawa Do Innovation?

The National Post’s David Akin had a useful article last week entitled Canada Has Failed at Innovation for 100 years: Can The Trudeau Government Change That?  Read it, it’s good.  It’s based around a new-ish Peter Nicholson article in Canadian Public Policy which is unfortunately not available without a subscription.  But Nicholson’s argument appears to be: we’ve done pretty well our entire history as a country copying or importing technology from Americans: what exactly is it that Ottawa is going to do to “shock” us into becoming a massive innovator?

Good question.  But I have a better question: does it make any sense that the federal government is leading on these kinds of policies?  Wouldn’t provinces bet better suited to the job?  Knee-jerk centralists (my guess: probably half my subscribers) probably find that suggestion pretty horrific.  But hear me out.  There are a number of really good reasons why Ottawa probably isn’t best placed to lead on this file.

First: innovation policy is to a large extent is about people and skills.  And skills policy has been fully in the hands of provincial governments for over twenty years now.  We accept that provincial governments are closer to local labour markets and local business for skills purposes.  Surely the same is also true for innovation?

Second: Canada is huge.  We’re not like Singapore or Israel or Taiwan, where industries are essentially homogenous across the entire country.  We are more like China or the US, where a single industry might look completely different in one part of the country than another.  If you haven’t already read Run of the Red Queen: Government, Innovation, Globalization and Economic Growth in China by Dan Breznitz and Michael Murphree, I recommend it.  Besides showing how innovation can be profitable even when it is not of the “new product”/”blue sky” (a truth to which our current government seems utterly oblivious), it shows how the structure of a single industry (in this case, IT) can be utterly different in different parts of a single country.  That’s also true in Canada.  And it’s why it’s tough to draw up decent national policies on a sectoral level.

(A corollary to that second point, which I made back here: because the country is so big, any government attempt to play the “cluster” game in the name of improved innovation is bound to get wrapped up in regional politics pretty quickly.  Anyone who’s watched Montreal and Toronto’s unseemly jockeying for a single big federal investment in Artificial Intelligence will know what I mean.)

Over the course of the past twenty years, of course, many provinces have set up their own innovation ministries or agencies.  But apart from the partial exceptions of Ontario and Quebec, they tend to be poor cousins of the federal ministry: understaffed and not especially well-resourced.  As a result, they’re not at present any more effective than Ottawa in driving innovation.  But that could change with more effective investment.  And of course, Ottawa would always have a role to play: if nothing else, its authority over competition policy means it will always have levers which it can and should use to promote innovation (even if at present it seems extremely reluctant to use this particular lever).

In short, it’s worth considering the hypothesis that it’s not “Canada” which has failed at innovation, but Ottawa.

February 21

Two Studies to Ponder

Sometimes, I read research reports which are fascinating but probably wouldn’t make for an entire blog post (or at least a good one) on their own.  Here are two from the last couple of weeks.

Research vs. Teaching

Much of the rhetoric around universities’ superiority over other educational providers is that their teachers are also at the forefront of research (which is true if you ignore sessionals, but you’d need a biblically-sized mote in your eye to miss them).  But on the other hand, research and teaching present (to some extent at least) rival claims on an academic’s time, so surely if more people “specialized” in either teaching or research, you’d get better productivity overall, right?

Anyone trying to answer this question will come up pretty quickly against the problem of how to measure excellence in teaching.   Research is easy enough: count papers or citations or whatever other kind of bibliometric outcome takes your fancy.  But measuring teaching is hard.  One line of research tries to measure the relationship between research productivity and things like student evaluations and peer ratings.  Meta-analyses show zero correlation between the two: high research output has no relationship with perceived teaching quality.  Another line of research looks at research output versus teaching output in terms of contact hours.  No surprise there: these are in conflict.  The problem with those studies is that the definitions of quality are trivial or open to challenge.  Also, very few studies do very much to control for things like discipline type, institutional type, class size, stage of academic career, etc.

So now along comes a new study by David Figlio and Morton Schapiro of Northwestern University, which has a much more clever way of identifying good teaching.  They look specifically at professors teaching first year courses and ask the question: what is the deviation in grades each of their students receives in follow-up courses in the same subject. This is meant to measure whether or not professors are “inspiring” their students.  Additionally, the measure how many students actually go on from each professor’s first year class to major in a subject.  The first is meant to measure “deep learning” and the second to measure how well professors inspire their students.  Both measures are certainly open to challenge, but they are still probably better than the measures used in earlier studies.

Yet the result is basically the same as those earlier studies: having a better publishing record is uncorrelated with teaching quality measures: that is, some good researchers have good teaching outputs while others don’t.

Institutions should pay attention to this result.  It matters for staffing and tenure policies.  A lot.

Incubator Offsets

Christos Kolympiris of Bath University and Peter Klein of Baylor University have done the math on university incubators and what they’ve found is that there are some interesting opportunity costs associated with them.  The paper is gated, but a summary can be found here.  The main one is that on average, universities see a decrease in both patent quality (as measured by patent citations) and licensing revenues after establishing an incubator.  Intriguingly, the effect is larger at institutions with lower research income, suggesting that the more resources are constrained, the likelier it is that incubator funding is being drawn from other areas of the institutional research effort, which then suffer as a result.

(My guess, FWIW, is that it also has to do with limited management attention span.  At smaller institutions, there are fewer people to do oversight and hence a new initiative takes away managerial focus in addition to money).

This intriguing results is not an argument against university or polytechnic incubators; rather, it’s an argument against viewing such initiatives as purely additive.  The extent to which they take resources away from other parts of the institution needs to be considered as well.  To be honest, that’s probably true of most university initiatives, but as a sector we aren’t hardwired to think that way.

Perhaps we should be.

June 18

Uniquely Universal

Universities are astonishing, unbelievably resilient entities. Clark Kerr once noted that of the 75 Western institutions founded before 1520 (and which have survived intact to the present day), sixty of them are universities.

But universities aren’t merely unique in their reach across time – they are also unique in their reach across space. Few if any institutions are as truly global as a university. The basics of a campus are instantly recognizable whether you are in Nairobi, Tianjin or Regina. Give or take some nomenclature, administrative structures are essentially the same everywhere, and as David John Frank and Jay Gabler put it in their book, Reconstructing the University, they increasingly teach the same subjects and categorize knowledge the same way as well.

I was reminded of this the other day while reading James Fallows’ new book China Airborne, which examines both China’s enormous progress to date and its enormous challenges through the lens of the aviation industry. It’s an interesting book if you’re interested in innovation because it shows how tough it is to compete in so-called “apex” industries (that is, ones in which success requires the mastery of enormous numbers of different technological fields).

What caught my eye was Fallows’s discussion of how the Chinese reacted to having to adapt to new air safety regimes in the 1990s. They couldn’t be told they were adopting “American” standards, because that would have been humiliating. Being told they were adopting “international” standards was better, but what worked best of all was being told they were adopting international standards “with Chinese characteristics.” Being an ancient civilization (and they do genuinely think of themselves as a civilization rather than as a nation-state), it’s important for them to put their own imprimatur on things.

And yet, when it comes to universities, they don’t. China does have its own tradition of higher study dating back almost 1,400 years to the Great Academies of the Tang Dynasty which prepared students for imperial examinations; but while today’s gruelling Gaokao (i.e., university entrance) exams owe something to its imperial predecessor, there’s no pretence that universities are native Chinese or have Chinese characteristics. It’s all “global standards” and “world-classness” – without any modifications.

For all the criticisms and dissatisfaction which universities face in the West, it is in some ways the West’s most successful cultural export. Even the most virulent anti-colonialists never rejected them; indeed, they usually opened more. They have reached every corner of the globe and everywhere have a central place in the formation of the new middle classes. For all their faults, they have become the one universal and indispensable organization.

So if naysayers are getting you down, just remember – we must doing something right.