Daniel Munro is a principal research associate in science, technology and innovation policy at the Conference Board of Canada, and lecturer in the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.
In a recent essay on Canada's innovation problem, Munk Chair of Innovation Studies Dan Breznitz urges the federal government to minimize consultation and focus on action. He recommends that Canada follow the lead of Ed Mlavsky, who, as head of Israel's Binational Industrial Research and Development (BIRD) Foundation, prioritized "getting a few projects off the ground as quickly as possible" over writing "detailed plans and strategies."
But Ottawa has already committed to more consultation, and its new senior adviser on innovation policy is not expected to present policy proposals until just before the 2017 federal budget. This means that an innovation agenda is a year or more away from being revealed, let alone implemented.
Given this, there are four things the government should keep in mind as consultation unfolds.
First, a science policy is not an innovation policy. As higher education analyst Alex Usher has observed, there is a worrying trend of ministers framing announcements about science and higher education in the language of innovation. Although science is necessary for innovation success over the long term, it is not sufficient. Nor is innovation the sole reason why Canada should fund science. We need a balanced continuum of basic to applied science, as well as better links between innovation and certain kinds of science.
Second, firms must be at the centre of innovation policy. Canada's commercialization problem has much to do with comparatively weak innovation management and marketing capacity, as well as firms' limited involvement in global value chains and the pressure to innovate that it brings. Israel's BIRD program largely succeeded in spurring innovation because it was designed with Israeli firms' strengths and weaknesses in mind. The program required them to partner with U.S. firms whose management and product-design expertise, and access to key global markets, filled Israeli gaps. The U.S. firms benefited from the research-intensive technological capabilities and creativity of Israeli firms.
Third, innovation policy should focus on what firms really need, not what they happen to be using. Take the Scientific Research and Experimental Development tax credit. Widely used and wildly popular among Canadian businesses, the program may not be the best use of public resources to drive innovation. Many countries that lead in business R&D are less likely to rely on tax credits and more likely to use direct spending than Canada. Canada's programs may be popular, but that does not make them good policy.
Fourth, innovation is not only about high-tech product development but also about innovation in services, management and processes, such as supply-chain logistics. Programs that encourage and support adoption of new technologies (in addition to the creation of such technologies) would go a long way toward repairing Canada's productivity gap.
Innovation is important to the success of Canadian firms and to the economic and social well-being of individuals, communities and the country as a whole. That the government aims to improve economic growth by developing and implementing an ambitious innovation agenda is encouraging. As always with consultations, the trick is to ensure that the right views, not the loudest voices, carry the day.