Structural bias is constraining the value of Canadian research. We need to recognize and reward more diverse research activities.

Mark Mann
September 18, 2019

Recent research and innovation policy discussions have focused on how best to leverage the country’s research capacity into positive social, economic and cultural outcomes. These ambitions are on display in several ongoing initiatives. Ontario’s post-secondary education institutions are currently involved in the third iteration of the province’s Strategic Mandate Agreements (SMAs), which seek to provide visibility on institutional strengths and priorities and make our educational system more open, collaborative and cost-effective.

Ontario’s new Expert Panel on Intellectual Property is also looking at ways to maximize provincial investment in research activities and secure a return on this investment through technology transfer and, perhaps, coordinated IP support. The panel is led by Jim Balsillie, who has observed, “Innovation without a national IP strategy is philanthropy. You invent it and invest in it, and others get the benefits.”

While both the SMAs and the expert panel on IP are important steps, the policy imperative underwriting these initiatives fails to take in the scope of research capacity in Canada. We need a frame of reference that encompasses the breadth and depth of Canadian researchers' contributions to innovation.

The SMAs will look at two basic measures of research effectiveness for Ontario universities: share of funding from the Tri-Council and amount of research funding from the private sector. There are several problems with this approach.

Addressing a Core Challenge

Not all faculty get funding for their research from the Tri-Council. Some do research that is not covered by the Tri-Council, such as arts-based research and design research not yet covered by current research taxonomies. Some simply do not need funding to engage in their research. The point here is two-fold: 1) Tri-Council funding is not always an applicable criterion for measuring research activity; and 2) some disciplines do not produce outputs that accord with what peer review panels have typically deemed important; namely, publications in journals.

Basic research receives the majority of research funding in Canada. Some applied research occurs, but structurally very little. Even business R&D supports are unusually skewed toward early stage research or traditional product or process innovation. This is counter to what most economists expect from industry, which is to invest less in risky (basic) research and instead to favour experimental development — that is, getting research results into the market.

This issue underscores a core challenge Canada faces: how to realize more value from investments in basic research. There are notably few instances of an idea emerging from basic research and following a straight line into commercialization. But faculty are rewarded for the outputs of basic research (papers, patents) more than they are for applied research (creating prototypes or implementation models) or experimental development (launching products and services iteratively in the market). The point here is that if you are conducting a type of research that does not easily fall into a readily recognizable category, your work may not be recognized as a legitimate research activity. This structural bias is compounded in peer review for research funding and tenure and promotion.

Researchers working within the scope of applied research and experimental development are not well served when peer review panels look for publications as a marker of success. Moreover, new media distribution platforms have greatly expanded the ways in which knowledge transfer occurs. Disciplines involved in Reconciliation or software development, for example, are focused on outputs relevant to their audiences and the application of knowledge more than its creation.

There are efforts to account for other research activities, outputs and outcomes. The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences have undertaken this work in their report “Approaches to Assessing Impacts in the Humanities and Social Sciences.” The University of Sydney has published “University Guidelines for Non-Traditional Research Outputs (NTROs),”  — useful for creative work, exhibitions, and research reports for non-academic audiences. The Metrics Toolkit offers ways to account for an array of research outputs, from H index to journal acceptance rate to social media pickup of academic work.

The question is, how will these count when faculty seek Tri-Council funding  or tenure and promotion? Can we stand up systems that are discipline-specific and account for the diversity of research activity, output and outcome? If peer review can account for the type of research conducted (basic research, applied research and experimental development), we can then encourage more ideas to be translated into social, economic and cultural outcomes.

Ideas emerging from our world-leading basic research labs become a raw resource that we ship out to the world. Someone else will use them to create value. IP pooling offers protection, as long as industries with access to these pools are also spending on research (easily measured by their CRA submissions). An integrated and coordinated approach to the research-to-innovation continuum, where applicable, will help expand our notion of what constitutes research activity and help promote diversity in output. By recognizing—and rewarding—diversity in research activity, we can expect to realize more value from public investment in research.


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