Canada must release its ‘entrepreneurial genie’

February 23, 2015
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Paul Davidson, president, Universities Canada

This op-ed was published in the online edition of The Hill Times on February 23, 2015.

By Paul Davidson, president, Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada

Unlocking the secrets of innovation – when it happens, how, and what we can do to fuel it – is an ongoing pursuit of governments around the world. That’s because innovation drives prosperity and quality of life. Without it, societies and economies stagnate.

Last fall Canada’s universities convened a meeting of innovation leaders from Israel, Germany and Canada to share insights into their respective national innovation systems, with an eye to strengthening the Canadian system.

The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada chose to invite experts from Israel and Germany because they represent two of the world’s most innovative economies, sharing excellence in research and innovation, strong practices of academic-industry collaboration and prominent high-tech sectors. What really came to the fore during our two days of discussions was the culture of innovation and respect for research that supports this success.

Israel is an incredibly entrepreneurial society willing to take risks in pursuit of success. As Ruth Arnon, president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities pointed out, “many Israeli start-ups are funded in the recognition that few will succeed.“

Enno Aufderheide, secretary general of Germany’s Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, says his country “understands that funding research is fundamental for German prosperity.”

While conference participants agreed that the innovation process is complex, and that models cannot simply be imported from one nation to another, they also agreed that successful innovation systems have certain common elements: strong support for basic research; the involvement of students as researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs; support for creativity and risk-taking in research; multidisciplinary collaboration; and strong university-private sector ties. These elements can be seen as the building blocks of a healthy culture of innovation.

And importantly, such a culture sees both basic and applied research as essential to building a strong innovation ecosystem. Our international guests noted that German and Israeli publics understand that their countries are well-off thanks in large measure to investments in research and innovation.

So how can Canada build a culture of innovation that permeates all levels of society?

Students and young researchers are a big part of the solution. Universities and industry are increasingly tapping into students’ potential as agents of technology transfer, knowledge exchange and entrepreneurship. Israeli and German universities offer students wide scope for interaction with industry and industry-experienced faculty members. Such opportunities in Canada are fewer but increasing—for instance, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s Collaborative Research and Training Experience Program that offers graduate students and postdoctoral researchers both international and industry experience.

Another key ingredient is risk-taking and support for creativity. Major scientific discoveries cannot be planned. They come from giving creative thinkers the freedom to follow new ideas. This fact, conference participants agreed, underlines the need for research programs and institutional structures that enable innovative approaches and encourage researchers to take risks.

These principles underpin distinctive Israeli and German approaches to research funding. In Israel, a wide range of applied research and commercialization activities are funded in the expectation that some will succeed and many fail—and that failure is itself productive. In Germany, the approach of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation) to research funding prescribes no disciplinary boundaries or quotas and no application deadlines, with the aim of funding the best ideas as they emerge.

Innovation success also requires a multi-disciplinary approach. It emerges not only from the natural sciences and engineering but the social sciences and humanities as well. Canadian universities are creating campus cultures, programs and physical spaces that encourage interdisciplinary collaboration. We need these collaborations to extend beyond the campus into local, regional and international partnerships.

The private sector has a vital role to play. The vibrancy of both Germany’s and Israel’s innovation ecosystems has much to do with the depth of university-private sector collaboration in those countries. Industry mentorship and information-sharing fosters academic researchers’ awareness of applied research needs—and innovative collaborations emerge when areas of shared fit and benefit are identified.

What can Canada learn from these insights? Manuel Trajtenberg, former chair of Israel’s Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education, acknowledged that policies cannot be simply copied from one country to another. Yet, he urged Canada to “release the entrepreneurial genie” by following Israel’s lead in shaping institutions that let the best and brightest be innovative, are open to change, and empower youth with a ‘can do’ attitude.

Canada doesn’t have to change course to strengthen the success of its innovation system. We do, however, need to bring the right people together, support their creative efforts, be open to risk, and share research and innovation successes with all Canadians.

About Universities Canada
Universities Canada is the voice of Canada’s universities at home and abroad, advancing higher education, research and innovation for the benefit of all Canadians.

Media contact:

Lisa Wallace
Assistant Director, Communications
Universities Canada
[email protected]

Tagged:  Research and innovation

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