The gap between universities and industry is fading, but can government programs keep up?

Guest Contributor
December 19, 2018

Universities and industry frequently operate like they belong to separate worlds, as distant and alien to each other as Venus and Mars. Traditionally, they have ignored each other’s cultures and priorities. Lately, however, we have seen considerable evolution in the discourse and mutual understanding between these two worlds.

Over the past decade, many academic programs have worked to incorporate entrepreneurship, innovation management, market driven issues, and intellectual property considerations in their programs. Concepts that were once taboo are now being heralded as important, such as open innovation and contractual industry-driven partnerships.

Student pressure is influencing this change of attitude, as students seek to assure the relevancy of their training. The emergence of colleges with strong SME partnerships supports the trend. Universities have traditionally been more inclined to partner with larger industries that could be more patient than SMEs for solutions to their technological challenges. Today, universities across the country are not only promoting innovation and entrepreneurship, but are also launching start-up accelerators, living labs and seed financing funds.

This change of posture has certainly been encouraged by all levels of government. We now have conferences celebrating applied research, something difficult to imagine a decade ago. This does not mean that fundamental research is to be curtailed. Exploratory research is essential to produce disruptive innovations that may leapfrog incremental improvements. However, incremental research, mostly through industry partnerships, is vital to industry growth. Even so, “innovations de rupture” or “breakthrough innovations” are vital catalysts for societal development, especially in the local economies that generate them.

Industry, on the other hand, hasn’t seen the same degree of change. Exploratory research has shifted somewhat to the public sector, including universities that benefit from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) funding for up-to-date equipment. Consequently, large firms are putting funding into partnerships with universities to access ideas that are generated by academic researchers and their highly trained students. But are these partnerships genuine? In fact, the funding is provided through vehicles that have matched funding, creating a reliance that can conflict with the researcher's or society’s best interest. While this dependence needs to be further evaluated, more investment in frontier fields should nonetheless be encouraged.

SMEs, on the other hand, represent the vast majority of enterprises and rely in great part on colleges and polytechnics to obtain timely solutions to their technical challenges. The gap between need and solution is therefore narrowing for SMEs. All parties would benefit if more sustained collaborations were developed between colleges and universities, with respect to services provided to industry. As we move into an era of Industry 4.0, 5G networks and other digital necessities, such as artificial intelligence, the need for stronger connections between science and SMEs should be a priority.

From this brief outline, we can conclude that both universities and industry have to a certain degree adjusted to new realities. Progress is on its way. But have government programs kept up?

The sheer number and complexity of programs is creating a barrier. To rummage through the labyrinth of government programs is to look for a needle in a hay stack. SMEs are not equipped for such expeditions. Up to now, the main government response has been to create one-stop-shops that are supposed to enable SMEs to redirect their queries to the right door: an excellent approach in theory, but it doesn’t work in the field, due to the sheer number of programs and available time for such searches, let alone the multiple choice answering machines that equip such services. Recently we have seen different government-funded organizations approach the issue differently, some such as NSERC proposing a unique and flexible program, with a fusion of all existing industry support initiatives.

The success of such a solution will depend not so much on how the eligibility rules are formulated, but on the quality and good judgment of those individuals analyzing the proposals. This raises a new question: after all those years of cost-cutting in the public services, do we have the necessary competences and culture to analyze and fund higher-risk and more diversified projects?

More in-depth analysis is needed. We are continuing to witness failures in the peer review system, as implemented up to now. Similarly, we need to re-evaluate the skills required to process with agility and intelligence the sort of projects that do not fall in any normative mould. New companies will be different, employing artificial intelligence and interdisciplinary components, with a service orientation and a sense of societal conformity and impact. Few governmental programs are currently equipped to deal with such proposals.

It is time to push the envelope. Could we be so bold as to propose that the National Research Council alternates presidents and vice-presidents each and every term, drawn from either industry or academia? Would industry open its doors to select university gurus to stay for periods of three years, so as to allow such relationships to become more durable? Could government officials be encouraged to spend secondments in industry or universities? Obstacles to such beneficial stays are mostly administrative and career-related. Can they be overcome? Even it sounds like science fiction, should we not give them a chance?


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