Editorial: An innovation nation?

Not enough of the good science Canada is producing is being commercialized.

For the past three decades, our leaders have talked a lot about Canada becoming an innovation nation — and it’s all been for naught. We’re still getting D grades when it comes to turning ideas into products and services that the rest of the world wants to buy. The problem is quite simple: the country’s institutions of higher education produce good science, but not enough of it is being commercialized.

We can all point fingers at government for failing to install policies that foster commercialization, as well as for spreading research money around too thinly. But business has to take some responsibility, too. Roger Martin, dean of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, argues that we don’t reward people for getting more education as much as the U.S. does, so our brightest thinkers often leave. It’s part of a vicious cycle: we don’t value higher-skilled workers as much, so the incentive to work longer hours is reduced and overall productivity suffers.

But there’s no shortage of solutions, and they don’t require more government spending, just better government spending. For instance, the Conference Board of Canada suggests we should focus R&D efforts on three key areas: clean energy, water technology and regenerative medicine (using stem cells to regrow and reconstruct damaged body parts). World-class science and technology already exists in these areas, but efforts must be concentrated.

In some cases, that might mean letting large provincial utilities at least partially privatize and take their solutions to the world. In others, Canada’s small companies must come together to create larger firms that can compete internationally.

Government should also tie R&D spending to products that are successfully commercialized, not just created, according to the Canada West Foundation. And businesses must be proactive in seeking out and cultivating institutional research to solve pressing problems and, as the Institute for Research on Public Policy suggests, get more involved in research funding.

That might be anathema to pure science, but what good is an innovation if nobody ever uses it?