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Contemplation of innovation

Posted on October 31, 2011 by

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A new panel on research and development (R&D) and innovation led by Tom Jenkins, executive chairman of OpenText Corp., has produced a report entitled “Innovation Canada: A call to action.” The 6-member panel has recommended “a radical overhaul that includes the creation of a new funding council and transforms the country’s largest research entity, the billion dollar National Research Council.”

I think the report is interesting not only because of its potential influence on changes to the Canadian research landscape, but also because what’s being reiterated is in many ways the same story that has been told about Canadian R&D for over 50 years.

The evident goal of the panel’s proposals is to facilitate the “triple helix” of university-industry-government relations (Benner & Sandström, 2000; Etzkowitz & Leydesdorff, 2000). One example is the recommended creation of an Industrial Research and Innovation Council, which “would be an arm’s-length funding agency to help entrepreneurs bring ideas to the marketplace.” So the report fits well with the federal government’s Science and Technology (S&T) policy document from 2007, which takes as its aim the construction of a Canadian knowledge infrastructure that integrates creation of human capital (i.e. a well-trained workforce) with the production of “innovation” through links between academic and business stakeholders.

Of course, the concept of “innovation” is imagined and translated in very specific ways. Peter MacKinnon invokes this logic when he states, “innovation drives productivity growth, which in turn enables Canada to compete globally and maintain our standard of living.” For this reason the “innovation problem” becomes a thorn in Canada’s side, and is by now taken as a given. What’s also a given is that the conversation about innovation continues, even in a self-conscious manner, without policy ever “solving” Canada’s problem. Canada does not “innovate”; its businesses do not invest in R&D, and its research institutes and universities fail to collaborate with industry. Therefore Canada will always fall behind its competitors.

Similar threads of critique have continued through decades of panels, commissions, and reports, some of them government-sponsored and others externally produced by universities, companies, and think-tanks. Past examples include the Glassco Commission of 1962, which criticized the NRC for lack of R&D collaboration with industry (Dufour & de la Mothe, 1993, pp. 12-14), and the Lamontaigne Commission of 1967-1977 which advocated for “permanent steps [to] be taken to bridge the gap between the academic and industrial sectors” (1968-77, vol. 2, p. 521, cited in Atkinson-Grosjean, House & Fisher, 2001, p.13).

To me it seems there’s something of a paradox in the fact that the government is expected to provide a solution to the problem of lack of private-sector innovation. One of the perennial questions from critics is: why do companies not invest in the R&D side in Canada? Could it be the “branch-plant economy,” the historical emphasis on manufacturing and natural resources, or some flaw in the national psyche? Whatever it is, the assumed role for governments is to provide the most hospitable environment possible for private R&D activities. Which leads to another major critique — that government investments in R&D never live up to their imagined potential in Canada. The argument is epitomized in Carol Goar’s comment that “for roughly 30 years, Ottawa has been pouring taxpayers’ dollars into Canada’s “innovation gap” — and achieving precious little.” Perpetual disappointment tends to be blamed on the private sector problem, or on the government for producing poor policy or trying to alter the market.

Every “innovation” is built on incremental discovery, but the notion of “discovery” itself is one we should consider carefully. What does it mean to “discover” something? What does mean for something to be “innovative”? Innovation policy deals with the economics of knowledge, where knowledge is assumed to be something that can and should be “economized” in this way. When the word “knowledge” appears in this context it’s clear that certain kinds of knowledge are (assumed to be) more closely related to “innovation” than others. What then does it mean to “discover” something that cannot be (immediately, obviously) economized? The parallels with critiques of education and its “outcomes” are not coincidental.

These are questions I’m not equipped to answer — but I do believe that “innovation” and “knowledge,” like “creativity,” are slippery words subject to narrow interpretations when convenient. When it comes to implementation, “innovation” will no longer be a rhetorical abstraction; it will be instrumentalized in some particular way. For this reason the language of policy is important; it tells us something about the way these difficult concepts are being implicitly defined, and how they will be realized in practice.

Melonie Fullick

About Melonie Fullick

Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.

Comments

One Response to “Contemplation of innovation”

  1. M-H says:

    You know that in Aus the Federal Government encourages university/industry collaborations and increases pressure on Unis to enroll more research students in certain areas (medical science, engineering, pure and applied science) through PhD funding mechanisms? PhD funding isn’t done through education any more; it’s through the Department of Industry Innovation Science and Research, which I find a bit of a worry, for reasons you’ve mentioned (what is ‘innovation’ anyway) and more. What ways do Canadian governments try to influence industry to ‘innovate’?

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