Canada and the United States need to get back to treating – and compensating – their leading technology creators like "rock stars," says IBM's global head of innovation.
"An economy is only as good as its supply of talent," explained Bernard Meyerson, International Business Machine Corp.'s vice-president of innovation and relations with universities. "Physical infrastructure is nice to have, but without good people, you get awful results."
It is not only about compensation, according to Mr. Meyerson, who is scheduled to speak Thursday at the Government Technology Exhibition and Conference in Ottawa about driving innovation through data analytics and high-performance computing.
Society must get better at directing "commensurate societal benefits" to the people who create the technologies that drive the economy, he said in an interview Tuesday from his home in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.
"We need to get back to treating technologists as rock stars," he said. "The engineer who writes the code that speeds up computing by a factor of 10, that's one of the heroes. … They should get the same level of rewards as rock stars."
Society doesn't value the creators of technology as much as it did during the peak of the space race in 1960s, he suggested.
Mr. Meyerson, however, rejected the notion that people on Wall Street and in the financial services industry are overpaid. The tech industry wouldn't be around without investors who put their money on the line, he pointed out.
"There has to be a balance," he said. "There has to be a way to recognize the heroes."
In April, IBM Canada Ltd. joined forces with the federal and Ontario governments to create a new Toronto-based research centre in collaboration with seven universities. IBM put up $175-million, Ottawa $20-million and Ontario $15-million.
The money will go to a range of projects, including dealing with aging urban infrastructure, the impact of climate change on the Grand River watershed, keeping cloud data confidential, advanced weather modelling for utilities, and tracking the cost of chronic diseases.
Canada remains a very good place in the world to do research and development, according to Mr. Meyerson.
He said locating the centre in Canada was less about tax incentives than about finding highly skilled people. "We've done very well [in Canada]," he said. "You have some of the best skills we've ever seen."
Investment by companies in research and development as a percentage of gross domestic product has been falling for more than a decade in Canada. Critics say that partly explains the country's lagging productivity growth.
IBM Canada ranked fifth among R&D spenders in Canada in 2011, investing $500-million, according to Research Infosource Inc. The top spender was Research In Motion Ltd. at $1.5-billion, followed by Bombardier ($1.3-billion), BCE Inc. ($569.1-million) and Magna International Inc. ($519.3-million).
Like other major R&D spenders in Canada, IBM has a key role in helping to focus university researchers on some of the big challenges that the corporate world is facing, Mr. Meyerson said. "Setting grand challenges is a great way of accomplishing things," he explained.
IBM has identified as many as 10 areas of focus for the Canadian R&D centre. "They're all society's grand challenges, and we want to wrap peoples' minds around them."