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Universities Are The Lifeblood Of Innovation

The effectiveness of university-industry research and development (R&D) partnerships is at the core of the drive to supercharge Canada’s innovation engine. There is incontrovertible evidence that this push is built on substantial success. Countless university-industry partnerships have supported the successful commercialization of university research. They have resulted in the creation of many competitive spin-off companies, the development of innovative product and service portfolios for existing firms and the generation of thousands of jobs in industries across the entire spectrum of economic activity. It is not an overstatement to say that in Canada university research has been a cornerstone of innovation in every growth industry over the last 60 years.

That is not to say that universities are without their critics. Those industries that rely on university research complain that the processes of technology transfer, commercialization and invention management are fundamentally flawed by universities’ insufficient attention to the need for rapid progress in making innovation marketable.

Governments fund universities without setting their explicit research objectives and universities are left to determine their own research agenda, generally autonomously at the level of individual departments. There has been criticism of this approach by some in industry who would prefer that universities focus on practical research and that government provide guidance to that end. Industry lobbyists increasingly are pressuring government to support economic growth and job creation by encouraging universities to shorten their research timelines to reflect the near term by shifting their focus – and funding – from basic to practical research and commercialization.

This presents a profound challenge to universities. It is with basic research where breakthrough discoveries and technologies are most likely to occur, although if they are frequently distantly removed from being commercial products. It is precisely because the lead time to generate marketable products is often so long that many firms in the private sector effectively have abandoned basic research. From manufacturing to mining to the life sciences industry, industry has dramatically downsized its investments in basic research in favour of collaborating with universities.

The immediate beneficiaries of technology transfer and commercialization is the university itself rather than industry. This is counterintuitive and may appear unproductive to the private sector. However, it may require many years for university basic research to translate into viable inventions and even longer for inventions to reach the market. Even successful, patentable discoveries are not likely to achieve a significant return on investment in the short term. If university researchers capitulate to the demands of industry to trade long term basic research for a focus on developing practical inventions, commercialization may only involve picking the lowest hanging fruit. Long shot breakthrough innovations in industries such as biotechnology will be less attractive if decades are required for commercial products to reach the marketing stage. Under the pressure of short term results, and without the benefit of hindsight, the most promising research may never be undertaken at all.

In the race to capture the benefits of innovation, the rest of the world is not standing still. China has redoubled its effort to increase basic research funding although it is too early to determine the results of this investment, or even its trajectory. Other nations are making ambitious investments in R&D, reflecting the recognition that the critical function of basic research should not be placed at risk, even if there appears no immediate practical application of that research.

None of this is to suggest that a focus on the commercialization of innovation should not be better funded or that universities should not support industry by engineering a more efficient and productive technology management and commercialization platform. But as other nations are discovering, and as Canada’s record has already demonstrated, successful university innovation involves focusing on basic research while effectively supporting commercialization, not substituting the former for the latter.