Seizing Canada’s Moment: Moving forward in science, technology, and innovation

The Partnership Group for Science and Engineering (PAGSE) is an umbrella organization operating under the auspices of the Royal Society of Canada to represent the Canadian science and engineering community in Canada. PAGSE’s members are drawn from learned and professional societies across the spectrum of science and engineering as practiced in our country. PAGSE keeps abreast of science and engineering policy and implementation in Canada through monthly meetings with agencies and institutions involved in science policy, and it organizes the Bacon and Eggheads breakfast speaker series to communicate important advances in science and engineering to decision makers.

PAGSE has discussed Industry Canada’s science and technology consultation paper, and is pleased to forward the following responses to the questions posed in the paper for consideration by the Minister.

Building on the advice provided by the Expert Panel on Federal Support for Research and Development, what more can be done to improve business investment in R&D and innovation?

The discussion paper acknowledges that Canadian business continues to underinvest in R&D and innovation. This is occurring while Canadian companies hold large portfolios of surplus cash, which they are choosing to withhold from such investment. Clearly, R&D and innovation investment, as presently understood by business, is unattractive for broad swaths of the private sector. The Minister should demonstrate to Canadian businesses, using information available to the Government of Canada, that investment in R&D is directly tied to long-term business performance over a time frame of a decade or two (since 1995). The performance should be demonstrated, for example, in terms of: share price, market share, dividend distribution, and job creation, especially for young Canadians. The business performance of companies that invest significantly in R&D should be explicitly highlighted. The case for investment must be made in business’s own terms.

What actions could be taken, by the government or others, to enhance the mobilization of knowledge and technology from government laboratories and universities, colleges and polytechnics to the private sector?

The Government’s Innovation strategy has been in place now for several years. However, many people in the research sector, especially those in positions of leadership, were educated, trained, and matured in a different culture. The government should encourage and enhance opportunities, such as via internships and exchanges, for increased understanding and shared vision between the research and business communities. The Mitacs internships program is an excellent example of an initiative to fuse the two cultures. These internships are for graduate students, and will likely return dividends in the long run. At present there are no similar programs at the professional or senior scientist level. If exchanges (not just visits) of several months between universities and industry or government and
industry were developed, they would help nurture communities of common focus and mutual respect. In addition, the German model for connecting research and innovation relies on institutes for upstream research (Max Planck Institutes) and manufacturing innovation (Franhofer Institutes). Industry, universities, and government work cooperatively in the Franhofer Institutes. President Obama has announced an expansion of similar manufacturing institutes in the United States, but not to the detriment of the upstream research because it nurtures manufacturing innovation. Canada, too, should have sophisticated institutions in both roles.

How can Canada continue to develop, attract and retain the world’s top research talent at our businesses, research institutions, colleges and polytechnics, and universities?

The key condition required to attract and retain top talent is a stable and sustained funding environment. The time scale for many positions in business is 2 – 4 years, but in research the time required to initiate, examine, and conclude projects is on the order of 7 – 15 years. Top research talent expects to work in a fully professional environment using state-of-the-art equipment and instruments. Their research staff anticipate a career with its associated prospects and commitments. In the last decade, professional research support staff numbers have remained static or declined. If staffing cannot be sustained, the top talent leaves. Furthermore, significant reductions to resources devoted to research tools and instruments are in progress, so maintaining technological excellence is increasingly difficult. The constraints with staffing and equipment can be addressed on a project-by-project basis, but this fails to correct deterioration in the overall research environment and the broader support required to assist Canada’s diverse industrial base.

How might Canada build upon its success as a world leader in discovery-driven research?

Canadians, by and large, recognize that research is a long-term investment, and that most publicly funded research is upstream, some years away from product development. Canadians also understand that business’s role is to bring products to market. The former activity, if publicly funded, takes place in a context where results must be freely available, while the latter is in a specifically competitive environment. There is a continuum between the upstream activities and the market place, between initial research concept and product distribution. This is the innovation supply chain. All elements of this continuum must be supported for success. The links of the chain can be strengthened if constructive opportunities for development of common visions are provided, as mentioned above.

Is the Government of Canada’s suite of programs appropriately designed to best support research excellence?

Research is a community activity, and most research institutions operate on a multidisciplinary basis. At present there is considerable emphasis on interdisciplinary initiatives for the conduct of science and engineering and identification of solutions to real-world problems. The top journals are multidisciplinary. The majority of advances in industry supporting Canada’s resource sector, for example, occur as collaborations of scientists and engineers. If government programs are perceived to downgrade particular branches of science, the research community, writ large, quickly senses a divisive ethos. Excellence, across-the-board, suffers when upstream science or particular areas of science are downgraded, because it is extremely difficult to predict the particular projects conducted today that will yield the benefits of tomorrow. That is the fundamental problem far-sighted innovation policy must address.