Dr Lyndon Mitchell

Guest Contributor
January 31, 2011

Nothing Endures But Change *

By Dr Lyndon Mitchell

Science is the very embodiment of chance and change. Science can be defined as "the systematic study of the nature and behaviour of the material and physical universe, based on observation, experiment, and measurement, and the formulation of laws to describe these facts in general terms." Here in Canada, a debate is raging regarding innovation, technology and the economy. How does Canada focus its precious resources to reap maximum benefit for its people? I think that change is inevitable and recent reports show why.

Oct 2008Environment15th  CConference Board of Canada
Feb 2010Innovation14th  DConference Board of Canada
Dec 2010Spending9th  N/AIMF - Battelle Report

Total global spending on R&D is anticipated to increase 3.6% to almost $1.2 trillion in 2011. In Canada we are expecting to spend US$24.3 billion [IMF - Battelle Report]. A recent OECD report indicates that while the Canadian government's R&D spending had increased slightly, the gain was more than offset by a decline in private-sector investment. As I prepared to write this article I not only reviewed the hard statistics, but also the softer data, meaning the opinions of other authors that have recently been published in RE$EARCH MONEY.

Peter Calamai (R$, September 1/10) wrote that science failed to inspire Canadian youth, quoting that Canada ranked 24th out of 35 nations in the percentage of students graduating from university with a science or engineering degree. Robert Fripp (Senior Associate at The Impact Group) has also gathered opinions. Linda Hasenfratz, CEO of Linamar, believes that their top need is people development. They work with educational establishments at all levels. This fits in well with the opinion of Dr Stephen Toope, (president and vice-chancellor of the University of British Columbia). He wrote about the need to align intellectual curiosity with creative collaboration, stating that qualified and innovative graduates will surely have the best chances of success.

Calamai further wrote in December 2010 about the lessons Canada can learn from its fellow Commonwealth country, Australia. Perhaps most notably, from my perspective, is the need to craft a strategy that defines priorities and endorses openness and collaboration. Paul Dufour (R$, December 13/10) states that previous attempts to write scientific policy have been weak. And Dr Kamiel Gabriel thinks that Canada needs a new academic deal to gain the maximum social benefit from R&D funding (R$, November 29/10), and that we need an economy driven by innovation.

What the statistics above show is that Canada's economy is not driven by Canadian innovation. The data appear to show that there is a global "arms race" starting for patentable technology, with the perception being that the country which spends the most will win. Using the almighty dollar to win this race, in the midst of the deepest global recession since the 1930's, appears to the author mildly contrary. Other processes are required. David Crane (R$, October 14/10) also asks the question "What can Canada do?" David Malone (R$, November 15/10) suggests that the key to Canada's future prosperity lies within the emerging markets.

I am not sure that I agree. If a technological "arms race" is about to begin, our strongest trading ties should be exploited and developed first. Hence Canada needs to first strengthen its links with traditional trading partners such as the Commonwealth, Europe, NAFTA and especially the US.

So what can be done? David Crane (R$, June 4/10) endorses the five principles for innovation published by the OECD, and paraphrased below. Paul Dufour (R$, December 21/09) also recognizes the importance of the OECD's recommendations.

1. Empowering people to innovate through education

2. Creating sound policies on competition

3. Ensuring high-quality R&D infrastructure

4. Using innovation to solve global challenges

5. Governing through principle (and ethical) based policies

Undoubtedly everyone will have their own point of view. Strategists will want to allocate resources across businesses. Financiers will want to allocate scarce resources for maximum stakeholder value. Scientists will want to pick "the right" innovation projects. Marketers will want better priorities and faster time to market. CEOs will want quick winners with positive financial impact.

It is the task of the elected officials, and their civil servants, to sort through all these various opinions and lead Canada towards a better future. This will undoubtedly involve change. So in the midst of all these opinions I would like to add mine.

In the world of innovation and creativity, money and size isn't everything. In fact it may be detrimental to the very thing you are trying to create. Without imaginative people and an environment that stimulates that desire to create, any novel scientific venture will be reduced to the level of a standard. While standards are necessary to regulate the quality of a product or a process, they will never produce the next atomic force microscope or quantum magnet.

The focus should be to link the creative scientist to the imaginative businessman. In this way the difficult task of eliminating the deficit will be made a lot easier. The training of people will happen naturally as this link grows stronger. Businesses will insist, from the universities, upon people with the skills to flourish in the environment that this partnership demands.

Creating this link is not going to happen with a large and bulky bureaucracy; rather an adhocracy is required. An adhocracy was defined by Robert H. Waterman, Jr as "any form of organization that cuts across normal bureaucratic lines to capture opportunities, solve problems, and get results." Throwing large amounts of money at the problem may just make it worse.

In conclusion, I will end with a quote from General Dwight D Eisenhower on strength, weakness, and cooperation. "Only strength can cooperate, weakness can only beg."

Dr Lyndon Mitchell is the Construction Sector Coordinator at the National Research Council Canada's Institute for Research in Construction. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.

* From Lives of the Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius (probably 3rd century AD, native of Laerte in Cilicia)

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