Optimizing Canada’s innovation system: Perspectives from abroad

Lessons from the Innovation Policy Dialogue

Successful innovation policies and practices are tied to nations’ distinctive histories, societies and attitudes—but sharing them can galvanize fresh thinking and new approaches across national borders. This was the foremost lesson from the conference “Optimizing Canada’s innovation system: Perspectives from abroad” that Universities Canada hosted in Ottawa in October 2014.

The conference brought together distinguished higher education leaders from Canada, Germany and Israel to explore national policies in science, technology and innovation, with the aim of drawing lessons to strengthen Canada’s national innovation system. Germany and Israel are 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.

Basic research is essential

Conference participants affirmed that discovery research driven by curiosity is fundamental to innovation. Basic versus applied research isn’t an either/or choice for universities and funding agencies to make—both are essential to support a strong innovation ecosystem. As Yaacov Michlin, president of Yissum, the technology transfer company of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, observed, “the university’s role is to do basic research and to do research that benefits society—there’s no tension in doing both.”

“It’s not just about having enough industry-focused researchers; we need to keep basic research strong enough to keep the innovation pipeline balanced with input on both ends.”

German and Israeli participants noted that their countries’ economic prosperity is driven by public and government support for scientific excellence and basic research. Each nation offers extensive funding for the pursuit of fundamental research that can lead to disruptive innovation—and each also achieves highly commercial incremental innovation.

Students are vital to innovation

A major theme of conference discussions was the growing efforts by universities and industry to tap into students’ potential as agents of technology transfer, knowledge exchange and entrepreneurship. As researchers, interns and graduates, students from all disciplines, including the social sciences and humanities, are valuable to industry as sources of creative thinking.

Because many of today’s students are increasingly aware of and interested in entrepreneurialism, universities are offering entrepreneurship programs and incubators, fostering peer mentorships and providing campus space for start-ups. Israeli and German universities offer students wide scope for interaction with industry and industry-experienced faculty members.

“Educating human capital represents the single biggest contribution by Universities Canada member institutions to our regions and our nation. Educating students is by far our most important form of technology transfer.”

Innovation requires risk-taking and 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.

“We need to allow for serendipity in research; you can’t predict where research breakthroughs will come from.”

Multidisciplinary research is today’s cutting edge

Innovation increasingly emerges from research teams interacting across disciplines—not just the natural sciences and engineering but the social sciences and humanities as well. For this reason, universities are creating campus cultures, programs and physical spaces that encourage interdisciplinary collaboration. These collaborations must extend beyond the campus into local, regional and international partnerships.

According to Tel Aviv University president Joseph Klafter, interdisciplinarity is an institutional mandate: “Openness to audacious combinations of ideas and climbing over all fences between disciplines—we take this very seriously.” In Germany, said German Rectors’ Conference president Horst Hippler, “companies are interested in the best people from the humanities in order to foster group work and transdisciplinary views.”

“The next scientific revolution will be driven by scientists who have a multidisciplinary view of science, the opportunity to take risks, the infrastructure to work, and the freedom to think.”

University–industry collaboration

Participants agreed that the excellence of both Germany’s and Israel’s innovation ecosystems has much to do with the depth of university-industry 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.

“The interaction of people with ties to both academia and industry is central to innovation.”

Importantly, neither Israeli nor German universities offer targeted incentives and rewards for academic researchers to collaborate with industry. Researchers are free to focus on basic or applied research as they choose, with national cultures, practices and relationships sustaining a very high degree of applied research and collaboration.

Creatively adapting lessons from abroad

A conference high point was the electrifying commentary on Canada’s innovation potential offered by Manuel Trajtenberg, former chair of Israel’s Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education. While acknowledging that policies cannot be simply copied from one country to another, he urged Canada to “release the entrepreneurial genie” by following Israel’s lead in shaping institutions that let the best and brightest be innovative, in being open to change, and in empowering youth with a ‘can do’ attitude.

Canada has the necessary building blocks to become a world leader in innovation; through forums such as these, decision-makers can develop policies and programs to better leverage our assets. Universities Canada looks forward to continuing to convene international research and higher education experts in its ongoing policy dialogue series

“Now is the perfect time to leverage our strengths and to imagine new opportunities. We can do so much through collaboration – domestically and internationally.”

Universities Canada extends its thanks to the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Embassy of Israel for their invaluable support for this conference.

Universities Canada