Montreal Gazette – Industry-university co-operation is key to better research climate

Recently, Gilles Patry, president of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, offered his take on the three drivers of innovation: a healthy private sector that has science, technology and innovation strategies at its core; universities that produce strong talent; and researchers and workers who recognize and seize the opportunity to work smarter and more creatively.

These seem straightforward enough, but like many things that are easy to see, they are harder to do, which is apparent when you look at Canada’s track record. Consider the fact we rank 14th out of 20 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development when it comes to business expenditures on research and development. Or that we rank last out of a field of 17 OECD countries in terms of the number of PhD graduates we produce.

The current economic climate is making things even harder. Faced with the demand to be more creative and aggressive when it comes to innovation, they are looking outside, to Canada’s universities, for the next big idea. Universities are in a similar situation: with tightened government budgets and strapped donors, institutions of higher learning are seeking private-sector investment in research like never before.

At first glance, this appears to be a match made in heaven.

But the reality is that both universities and companies are often leery about joint collaborations. Historically, companies in many industries operated monolithically, amassing patents and intellectual property to inhibit competition from entering the market. Universities, on the other hand, have seen government as the major source of funding and therefore had no need to expand their network to the private sector.

There is an innovation gap in this country. It falls between the research and commercialization stages. By combining our talents, the gap can be closed and innovative solutions will be found for industry challenges. Smart people working directly with other smart people is the key. Many of the best breakthrough ideas start in academia because Canadian universities do two things incredibly well: they graduate highly talented members of the workforce, and they produce amazing “basic” research. Industry, on the other hand, has the mindset needed to take new ideas and commercialize them.

Furthermore, Canada needs to do a better job of exposing our future innovatorsuniversity studentsto the user communities of research such as industry, government and not-for-profits, and integrate this into graduate training programs. By learning how industry thinks about research and how it affects the bottom line, the students who emerge from our universities will be the complete package, with the technical, business and communication skills that industry needs. They will embody the business case for industry investment in R&D.

As more and more companies see that advanced research partnerships are a powerful tool and a way to connect with the next generation of skilled employees, universities will see greater private-sector investment. More importantly, these types of connections mean fewer of Canada’s most talented young people will leave for better job opportunities in the U.S. and Europe, where the appetite for our highly skilled researchers is at an all-time high.

Both industry and universities need to start seeing themselves as part of the same research continuum. By working together, companies and universities can effect positive change for the research climate in Canada.

More and better bridges, connecting the worlds of academia and industry, need to be built. Dialogue needs to take place between these groups in partnership with government to ensure that programs are in place to facilitate collaboration.

Canada’s future growth and prosperity lie in the development of a vigorous knowledge economy. If that is to occur, we need our universities and industry to work more closely together so that Canada competes successfully on the world stage.

Aftab Mufti is associate scientific director, MITACS Inc.
Rose Goldstein is vice-principal (research and international relations), McGill University.
Denis Desbiens is vice-president, Quebec, IBM Canada Ltd.
Wed Jul 13 2011
Section: OnLine
Byline: Aftab Mufti, Rose Goldstein, Denis Desbiens
Source: Special to the Gazette