Could Bitcoin technology improve Canada's science, technology & innovation indicators?

Mark Henderson
October 11, 2016

The use of Bitcoin-pioneered technology for the development of future science, technology and innovation (STI) indicators was proposed in a keynote address at the third Blue Sky Forum in Ghent, Belgium last month. The forum heard about the potential for using the blockchain technology behind the digital currency Bitcoin to better gauge the contribution of R&D to innovation.

The Blue Sky forum is held every 10 years to identify new STI indicators and was last held in Ottawa in 2006 (R$, October 4/06). Canada was well represented at this year's event, with delegates including Science minister Kirsty Duncan, Dr Fred Gault, former head of the (since renamed) Science, Innovation and Electronic Information Division at Statistics Canada, and Louise Earl, section chief for StatsCan's Investment, Science and Technology Division.

Blockchain technology ensures that data can be secured from tampering and revision in a statistical environment increasingly influenced by robotics and artificial intelligence. The proposal was made by Dr Luc Soete, rector magnificus at Maastricht Univ, who said the technology could be effectively deployed to track transactions related to R&D and innovation.

Soete's presentation characterized the use of blockchain technology as "a crazy idea" that could potentially further the goal of taking a systems approach to STI indicators, which are more widely distributed than ever before.

"In so far as an innovation builds on numerous inputs from frontier science … a technology such as blockchain with its decentralized, neutral ledger inventory system might well provide an essential input into identifying various contributions to various innovations," stated Soete, adding that blockchain could offer a "new funding source for publicly funded science."

"Dr Soete's provocative keynote address at Blue Sky 3 reintroduced the need to better capture knowledge flows throughout national, regional and the global economies and transformations of society," stated Earl in an email to RE$EARCH MONEY. "(The Blockchain concept) will receive serious consideration through collaborations between national and international statistical offices, science policy analysts and academics."

The Blue Sky Forum also explored a number of other areas concerning the future of STI indicators, stressing the need for more analysis using microdata and deeper insight into innovation by linking complementary data files. Such actions are required to ensure that STI indicators are able to capture global value chains in the innovation system and remain relevant in the 21st century.

Creating appropriate narratives to accompany indicators was also discussed, primarily for use by ministers and officials who control policy and resources.

The forum also heard about the ongoing revision of the Oslo Manual that defines innovation and provides guidance on data collection and interpretation. Led by the OECD and EuroStat, Earl says Canada is involved in reviewing the revisions and discussions "aimed at attaining concensus around proposed revisions".


Blue Sky Forum III Key Objectives

  • A forward looking, policy relevant road map on STI measurement.
  • Discuss and review the main conceptual underpinnings of current frameworks for STI indicators and data infrastructure initiatives, as well as their uses by the policy and research communities.
  • Explore the role of digital infrastructures in creating new opportunities for measurement and analysis, as well as challenges to collection standards and quality of STI indicators.
  • Strengthen collaboration and dialogue between: policymakers, data users and providers; national and global practices on indicators; efforts to build up and maintain underlying data resources and efforts to develop indicators; official statisticians and other practitioners; and STI data practitioners and practitioners in related domains.

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