This op-ed was initially published, on February 8, 2016, in the Hill Times’ Policy Briefing on Innovation.
Canada has always been a country of innovators, but as countless recent reports and studies have shown, either Canada is slipping, or the rest of the world is catching up and overtaking us. Providing the enabling conditions for the entire Canadian innovation ecosystem to grow and compete at all levels is critical. In order to be effective, a significant shift must occur to grow the number of Canadian firms adopting innovation as a business strategy, and broaden the scope of programs that develop the talent that drives innovation.
During the last election, the Liberals promised to invest $200 million per year for three years, in a new innovation agenda to expand support for incubators and accelerators, as well as the emerging national network for business innovation and cluster support. They have also pledged to invest an additional $100 million each year in the Industrial Research Assistance Program, which helps small- and medium-sized businesses innovate in order to become world leaders.
This is welcome news, though we have yet to see the role applied research will play in the Liberal innovation agenda.
Colleges and institutes occupy a unique, but critically important, corner of the innovation ecosystem as innovation intermediaries. With post-secondary research often automatically associated with universities, the general public is often surprised to learn that Canada’s colleges and institutes host over 670 specialized research centres and labs. Their facilities, equipment and expertise help boost productivity and accelerate innovation for local and regional industry partners. In the past year alone, Canadian colleges and institutes worked with over 6,300 partners in all sectors, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to develop new or adapted products, services, technology and processes.
These are mutually beneficial partnerships that help businesses improve their products while providing students with valuable work and research experience that will help them gain the expertise they need to become innovators themselves. Over 32,000 students were engaged in applied research in 2013–14 at colleges and institutes, up by 9% from 2012-13. Despite this progress, less than 3 percent of students are involved in applied research projects. Imagine what could be achieved if we could increase the pool of talent for innovation.
There are several steps the new government could take to support applied research at colleges and institutes. The first is an increased commitment to college and institute research through programs such as the Tri-Council College and Community Innovation Program and the Community and College Social Innovation Fund. Investing in these programs ensures institutions have the means to meet the growing demand for collaborative research projects and R&D-related co-ops and internships that build lasting partnerships for firms and students.
The second is to address the significant infrastructure needs of these institutions where over 60% of buildings currently exceed their 40-year life cycle. A major part of supporting innovation is to ensure institutions have the modern infrastructure and equipment necessary to train students on cutting-edge technology and ensure these institutions have the facilities to support their private sector and community partners as they seek to innovate. Investing in college infrastructure is one of the best ways to stimulate the economy while supporting innovation. It should be fairly straightforward as well, since there are currently over 800 ready-to-go deferred maintenance projects awaiting funding at colleges and institutes across the country.
Supporting college and institute applied research has returns at many levels – providing companies with the means to innovate and improve competitiveness; improving the social, cultural and economic well-being of communities; and training the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs. Few investments could claim to provide such varied returns.
President and CEO
Colleges and Institutes Canada