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In many cases, technical advances inspire a quest for scientific understanding (it works, but why?). (CasPhotography/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
In many cases, technical advances inspire a quest for scientific understanding (it works, but why?). (CasPhotography/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

CRESO SÁ

Science, technology and innovation: A new narrative is needed Add to ...

Creso Sá is professor and director, Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education, OISE-University of Toronto.

The idea that science is inextricably linked to technological progress is now taken for granted.

Historical evidence is voluminous and examples abound all around us, from satellites that keep our GPS devices working to medical treatments that cure diseases that have victimized millions in the past. This idea has unfortunately been drastically simplified to fit a global narrative of innovation that has shaped science policy in Canada and internationally.

Science and technology have co-evolved throughout history. After the Second World War, an interpretation of this relationship became popular in the United States, and was feverishly embraced elsewhere: From advances in science, we are able to create better technologies.

This so-called “linear model” has been widely discredited. For one, science does not always drive technology. In many cases, technical advances inspire a quest for scientific understanding (it works, but why?). Ask your doctor: She will readily give you examples of drugs and therapies that work, even if the underlying mechanisms remain obscure.

Nonetheless, as physicists in particular like to point out, greater understanding of phenomena such as magnetism or nuclear fusion has allowed new classes of technology to emerge. Techniques such as gene splicing, which allows the manipulation of DNA, have been made possible by fundamental advances in biology. There is certainly a case to be made for scientific theory allowing the development of new technologies in many instances.

The linear model was a convenient political argument to keep fundamental science carried out in universities separate from applied research and development taking place in industry.

The realization that it does not describe the complex relationship between science and technology has given rise to another interpretation, which views both as part of a broader interactive “system.”

In the current paradigm for supporting scientific research, the key goal is promoting innovation, which in turn is hoped to lead to economic growth.

Because governments are convinced that innovation is a good thing, they prioritize investments on activities that (presumably) lead to innovation. What used to be called “science policy” has been subsumed under innovation agendas. Research councils have worked tirelessly to assure politicians that their budgets are good investments in the innovation system. Universities have understood that as well and have created large infrastructures to support technology transfer and entrepreneurship.

So what is wrong with funding science and expecting innovation in return?

Shouldn’t governments and universities be working to promote prosperity?

The problem is the combination of a narrow interpretation of innovation with a simplistic understanding of the relationship between science and technology. The former is focused on products in “high-tech” fields such as information and communication technologies, advanced manufacturing and nanotechnology. The latter frames science as an input into short-term technology development. Mix these two misconceptions together and you have got the prescription for much contemporary policy: fund academic research projects on promising areas of technology, requiring the participation of industry partners, and you will get commercially valuable innovations as a result.

Needless to say, this is not how things work in the overwhelming majority of cases. But research-funding agencies have been compelled to create commercialization programs that aim at exactly that, to show politicians they are delivering innovation. The question is, are these the best institutions to support innovation? Research councils typically know how to fund academic science, which involves managing processes to allocate funds based on scientific merit. Supporting technology development, let alone the commercialization of inventions, is an entirely different ball game. It requires knowledge and expertise of industries, markets and business activities that they simply do not have.

Innovation is not only about technology in the everyday use of the word (high-tech devices), but about improvements firms make in producing, distributing and marketing their goods and services. It is about finding a more efficient or otherwise lucrative way to deliver a superior product or service. Redirecting the entire scientific research system toward innovation misses the point. Most of the action in innovation is well beyond technology, let alone research.

Canada has conformed to this narrow interpretation of the role of science in innovation for decades. The reviews of support for fundamental research and of the innovation agenda, initiated last year, were opportunities to confront the goals and architecture of government investments in these areas. They may still bring good news, although the delay in the release of the former has been at a minimum disconcerting, and the consultations around innovation seem to reiterate many of the assumptions discussed above.

We need a fresh discourse around the role and value of science in Canada, recognizing the multiple contributions research makes to knowledge creation, education, and technical advance. This discourse should recognize that government agencies do not have the foresight to predict, let alone engineer, commercial technology breakthroughs. It should also comprehend an acknowledgment of science as a fundamentally long-range activity, whose power accrues from cumulative knowledge and incremental advances in the understanding of natural and social phenomena.

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