• By: OLM Staff

Innovation in Canada’s Science and Technology Sector: Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s New Strategy

Governments do not create prosperity. It’s created by business and the best thing government can do is mitigate any unnecessary interference with companies as they do their business. Canada has the world’s fifth-largest aerospace industry with world-beating companies, such as Bombardier and CAE, and with the workhorse of NASA — the Canadarm. The Canadian biotech sector is third in the world in terms of number of companies and is recognized for its outstanding work in genomics, proteomics and pharmaceuticals. The auto parts sector, led by Magna International and Martinrea International Inc., is among the world’s best; their plants are among the world’s most productive.

In the October 2007mini-budget, Canada’s New Government announced $1.9 billion in new funding for a number of the policy commitments in the new Science and Technology (S&T) Strategy, almost all of which will go to support S&T-related activities at Canadian universities and community colleges.

In May 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper sent a clear signal to business that he intends to help and not hinder the efforts of Canadian companies when he announced the government’s Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage, a policy that focuses federal support for research and development on four key areas: natural resources, the environment, health and information technology “Our new strategy will create high-quality jobs in the science and technology sector, improve our standard of living and quality of life, and build a stronger economy and a stronger Canada for future generations,” Harper said.

The Prime Minister noted that the government will focus on three distinct Canadian advantages: an entrepreneurial advantage that encourages firms to be innovators; a knowledge advantage that keeps Canadians at the international forefront of research and discovery, and a people advantage that helps Canadians acquire the skills they need to participate in the knowledge-based economy. He noted that his new strategy is designed to reverse years of declining private sector investment in R&D and falling enrolment in university science and engineering programs. “Building up our science and technology assets and expertise is as important to the economic future of Canada as the development of our physical infrastructure,” the Prime Minister observed.

In a change from the previous Liberal government’s policy, Harper’s S&T Strategy sets out a multi-year framework designed to create a business environment that encourages the private sector to innovate, and to guide intelligent, strategic investments of public funds. Unlike the Liberals who were prepared to have bureaucrats develop huge spending programs (such as The One Tonne Challenge) and then run them while spending loads of public money, the Tories want business to advise government on where strategic spending can make a difference — especially if it is tagged on to a private-sector initiative. Look for this type of equation to be front and center on Harper’s policies as they relate to his Green Plan program and other incentive-based initiatives. Let business find the market and be out front and government will provide support if it is in the public interest and if it is a well-structured private public partnership led by business. Jim Prentice, the federal Minister of Industry, reinforced this view, adding that:” Our S&T Strategy is a comprehensive vision of how the government can use the work of its departments, its expenditures and its policies to create a more productive and competitive economy. In total, the Government of Canada invests more than $9 billion every year in support of science and technology”.

Essentially what the strategy is trying to achieve is link the billions in federal money spent on R & D with a pathway to commercialization with private-sector companies. “Canada is charting a new direction, one that links the competitive energy of Canada’s entrepreneurs to the creative genius of our scientists,” the PM said. “Our new strategy will strengthen Canada’s economy by tapping our deep well of entrepreneurial energy to fuel our technological progress.”

Steve Martin, a leading expert on business innovation at Ryerson University, believes the strategy is very clever, noting that “it is the first real policy effort I have seen by the federal government to link the huge resources from R & D spending in the federal government and in universities with a commercialization play tied to the private sector. If it works, it could be very beneficial to Canada’s R & D structure and our economy.” Prentice notes: “When it comes to harnessing innovation to increase productivity, the contribution of Canada’s private sector is absolutely critical. Without the private sector turning discoveries into products we cannot turn our knowledge into wealth.”

In a recent speech to the Association of and Colleges of Canada, told participants: “We are to sustain Canada’s research excellence and supply of highly qualified people. We are working with our partners in the private sector, the universities and provinces to leverage efforts and commercialization outcomes.” Prentice registered strongly with participants when he said: “Canada’s universities and colleges have a significant role to play to ensure that the work of (academic) researchers is translated into tangible benefits for Canadians. “Finally, someone recognized the big elephant in the room. Tangible results are expected to come from the loads of dough the feds are putting into university R & D and/or commercialization programs. Something real and commercialized should be an expected outcome. Martin concurs: “People in universities agree that there is money that needs to be spent on pure research. No one argues with that. The problem is that there is also a lot of money being put into universities and public programs for research commercialization and there are few identifiable outcomes. The best people to commercialize product or ideas are in the business sector. So this new government policy approach —trying to establish a better order to get successful commercial outcomes from R & D spending — is a step in the right direction.

Prentice is very positive about the policy and said the way forward for Canadian businesses is to compete on the basis of new ideas, better approaches and the latest technologies. He points to a great Canadian success story — SMART Technologies, the industry pioneer and market-segment leader in easy-to-use interactive whiteboards and other group collaboration tools. Using SMART products, groups can access and share the information they need to meet, teach, train and present, regardless of distance. Created by Canadians David Martin and Nancy Knowlton in 1986, SMART now sells its product in more than 100 countries and employs 1,000 people in eight cities worldwide. SMART’s products are assembled in Canada and the company’s success is rooted in the willingness of its founders to take risks, to focus on the R&D required to commercialize their products, and to recruit and retain a world-class team of highly qualified individuals. The result is a company that competes internationally while creating high-quality, well-paying jobs for Canadians. Prentice notes that: “Companies like SMART are essential to raising the standard of living in Canada. We need more companies like this. Investing in innovation makes firms strong and competitive. Investing in innovation is also an effective way of increasing the productivity of the Canadian economy as a whole.”

To help keep the policy grounded in reality, Prentice tapped Perrin Beatty, former Minister of National Revenue and other portfolios under PM Brian Mulroney, and now president and CEO of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, to guide a process that will ensure that the range of new business/university collaborative research programs actually meets the needs of business and supports the four national research priorities outlined in the new policy. The Science, Technology and Innovation Council, chaired by Dr. Howard Alper, a distinguished researcher and professor of Chemistry at the University of Ottawa, will bring the ideas and experience of business and academia directly to bear on government policy. Prentice noted that “the Council will guide us in setting our forward agenda.” In other words, government policy will be based in the university and business reality that drives the marketplace rather than on the views of non-business bureaucrats from Industry Canada who have not always responded constructively to what the business and university community has been telling them.

By: Hayley Norman