Canada's federal government, pursuing a growth and innovation agenda aimed at a lingering productivity problem, seems to think the solution lies in turning researchers into entrepreneurs – recent changes to the National Research Council's mandate are the latest example. But the greatest commercial successes come from top scientists who are left free to pursue their own curiosity-driven research.
The architecture of digital computers was first laid out by the great mathematician John von Neumann. The basic protocols of the Internet were laid out by professors at a handful of top U.S. schools. Almost all modern pharmaceuticals and surgical procedures were invented by university medical researchers.
Few of these academic inventors are driven by the pursuit of wealth. Instead, their curiosity drives them to unravel practical problems whose solutions required fundamental scientific discovery.
Of course, transforming academic ideas into commercial success requires more than curiosity. It typically requires a partnership between professors, who are good at fundamental research, and business people, who are good at commercial development. Each party should specialize in what they do best.
The OECD has recently criticized Canada's lack of success in commercializing academic research, relative to the United States. The data show that business, not academia, is the laggard in the Canadian commercialization partnership.
Canadian businesses must be induced to become more active partners in commercialization. They are most likely to invest in a partnership when they are confident that their partner excels in something they can't do well themselves. So we need to fill Canadian universities with the very best scientists, the kind most likely to find something useful when led by curiosity to think deeply about practical problems.
This would entail a change of strategy by federal granting agencies. Instead of giving top priority to proposals that target research to business needs, as they are being encouraged to now, they should evaluate proposals on pure scientific merit.
Universities could also help by allowing their faculty to be "free agents" when seeking help to commercialize their work. All major Canadian research universities have technology transfer offices to assist professors in this. Only a few – such as Waterloo – allow their faculty to go elsewhere for assistance. However, free agency promotes competition, efficiency and variety.
Competition could come from private companies offering their commercialization services. It could also come from some of the supra-university agencies that the federal government has subsidized in its Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research program.
A competing source could be the National Research Council institutes. The federal government has recently announced an initiative to make these institutes undertake more business-oriented and business-led research, but it should go further, by making the institutes offer "concierge services" to businesses seeking to partner with academic, rather than undertaking research itself.
The world's best scientists are highly mobile. They will go wherever they are paid well to do what they do best. Anything we can do to attract more of them to Canada will benefit us and boost our economic growth. Nothing would make Canada more attractive to them than a policy of leaving them free to pursue their own research agendas, and free to commercialize the results as they see fit.
Peter Howitt is the Lyn Crost Professor of Social Sciences Emeritus, Brown University, and Fellow in Residence at the C.D. Howe Institute. He is author of the C.D. Howe Institute study From Curiosity To Wealth Creation: How University Research Can Boost Economic Growth.