Office of the President

Andrew Petter, President and Vice-Chancellor

Opinion: Now is the time for a national knowledge mobilization strategy to maximize research potential

August 28, 2019

Op-ed published in the Globe and Mail

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

Having helped Canadian universities become global leaders in the production of research, federal governments have fallen short in supporting those universities to transform their research discoveries into marketable innovations – much to the disadvantage of the Canadian economy.

Canada punches well above its weight in higher education research strength. Our universities and institutes are research powerhouses, producing 4 per cent of the world’s peer-reviewed publications with only about 0.5 per cent of its population.

As a global innovator, however, Canada watches ringside.

The Global Innovation Index ranks Canada a dismal 17th, just nudging out Luxembourg.

This gulf, between our impressive research performance and our lacklustre innovation results, arises from the structure of Canada’s economy and a shortcoming in federal innovation policy.

Structurally, Canada is dominated by small and medium-sized enterprises, which often lack the internal capacity to conduct their own R&D. And many of our larger companies are subsidiaries of multinationals, which tend to concentrate their R&D in other countries. As a consequence, Canada’s spending on business enterprise research and development relative to GDP is about half the average of member countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Recognizing this structural weakness, federal governments a generation ago began investing more heavily in higher education research and development (HERD). That lifted Canada to third place among OECD countries for HERD spending relative to GDP, and helped to build our impressive university research capacity. While our HERD standing has since slipped to a disappointing eighth spot, universities have attracted sufficient private sector investments and other resources to now boast the highest level of research spending in the world.

Unfortunately, this research strength has not, as governments had hoped, translated into marketable innovation. While Canada stands ninth among OECD countries in total research investments relative to GDP, we rank 22nd when it comes to innovation results.

Changing this reality will require government to summon the same kind of resolve that it has shown previously with respect to research funding. Universities need support to develop programs and initiatives that will transform their research discoveries into economic and social innovations. For inspiration, we need only look to our competitors.

Britain and the United States invest hundreds of millions of dollars to support the mobilization of knowledge from research institutions to the marketplace. Smaller countries such as Switzerland and Sweden have generous joint education-business innovation funds.

Inspiration is also available at home. Even without such government assistance, some Canadian universities have strived to make innovation a focus of their activities.

At Simon Fraser University, we’ve identified research mobilization as a primary goal of our strategic vision to be Canada’s “Engaged University.”

Through SFU Innovates, a university-wide strategy that connects researchers and students with business and community partners, we’re commercializing health technologies, providing R&D to local companies, and helping to create and scale-up business ventures. RADIUS has become a major engine for social innovation. And SFU VentureLabs is now British Columbia’s leading science and technology business accelerator.

Yet, rather than increasing support for initiatives such as these, Ottawa has reduced assistance for university-based innovation by, for example, ending the Intellectual Property Mobilization Program, shifting funding away from the Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research, and denying universities direct access to the federal Strategic Innovation Fund.

Not surprisingly, a recent survey of Canadian universities showed big cuts in staff dedicated to licensing and patenting, and an even bigger decrease in new patents submitted.

It is heartening in the face of these developments that Universities Canada has joined the call for a national knowledge mobilization strategy to maximize the innovative potential of university-based research. Such a strategy could, among other things, support innovation hubs that connect university researchers with industry and community partners; fund shared research facilities, business incubators and accelerators; encourage lab to market programming; and promote patenting and prototyping of high-potential innovations.

Federal governments have shown real foresight by investing in higher education research. The job, however, is only half done.

Now is the time for Ottawa to finish what it started, driving innovation and bolstering Canada’s competitiveness by assisting researchers to take their discoveries into the community and the marketplace for the benefit of all Canadians.

With strategic support, Canada can be a powerhouse for both research and innovation.