I came across an innovative-sounding idea recently about how to improve Canada’s innovation performance. Axel Meisen, former president of Memorial University, chemical engineer by training and currently chair of foresight with Alberta Innovates: Technology Futures, has proposed the creation of “industrial practice professors,” or IPPs.
Writing in the Jan. 31 issue of Research Money (vol. 25, no. 1, subscription required), Dr. Meisen observes that “Canada has a fundamental, chronic and persistent innovation problem.” He says our innovation performance has deteriorated for several decades relative to other advanced nations, even while federal and provincial governments have made major investments in research, particularly at Canadian universities.
Something additional and fundamentally different must be done. Since most leaders of Canadian organizations are postsecondary graduates, it is compelling to conclude that our universities and colleges are part of the innovation problem and can be part of its solution.
Hence his suggestion for the creation of a new type of professorship, the industrial practice professor. These professors, he says:
would have first-hand knowledge of advanced industrial practices, particularly the practices of highly innovative, globally competitive companies in Canada and abroad. They would have ongoing interaction with such firms, participating not only in the development of new advanced products and services based on the latest research, but also marketing, production, customer service, financing, intellectual property protection, regulatory compliance and staff training.
Few university or college professors have this type of knowledge, he says, adding:
Even in faculties like business administration and engineering, the number of professors with such comprehensive expertise is small. Professors tend to be highly competent and dedicated specialists. Without question, specialists are needed but by themselves, they are insufficient to support the development of innovative, globally competitive corporations. While some faculties engage excellent practitioners on short-term assignments (for example, as executives in residence), their influence on students is limited and they do not shape academic programs; this is done by the regular faculty who are primarily disciplinary specialists.
Similar in concept to the Canada Research Chairs program, Dr. Meisen suggests the federal government fund 150 IPPs in Canadian universities and colleges so that they are fully established and filled by 2017 – Canada’s 150th birthday.
It’s an intriguing idea, and I’d be interested to hear what others think. Could it indeed by a piece in the puzzle of our innovation underperformance? Is it even practical? And what are the obstacles?
I have concerns about the proposal that are unrelated to innovation and which have more to do with the multiplying roles and hierarchies of professors, but I’ll leave that discussion for another post.