Strategic direction and a re-balancing of research types essential for improving Canada’s innovation performance - McDougall

Mark Henderson
January 10, 2018

Canada must re-balance public investments in fundamental and applied research says a former president of the National Research Council, and provide high-level direction to increase the uptake and application of innovation, including offering experiential learning and professional development for key players in the innovation ecosystem.

John McDougall, who served as NRC president from 2010 to 2016, based his observations on a comparative analysis he undertook of 16 economies and their research and innovation systems, examining innovation institutions and economic policies and “how the two relate and come together”.

“I’m a systems oriented guy so I always look at cause and effect. There are approaches that work better than others, certain groupings and particular behaviours that make sense,” says McDougall. “We’re a very strong knowledge producer but not an effective innovation producer which leads to leakages.”

Although McDougall’s research remains unpublished, he did present some preliminary findings at the 2015 Portland International Conference on Management of Engineering and Technology (PICMET), highlighting the role the NRC can play in enhancing Canadian innovation performance and wealth creation.

Augmenting his research with data and analysis from previous work such as the Jenkins Report and the State of the Nation reports of the Science, Technology and Innovation Council, McDougall contends that Canada struggles to become globally competitive. That’s despite its considerable research strengths and $100 billion in spending over the past 10 years on initiatives to stimulate competitiveness, productivity and economic growth. The result is declining business R&D spending, knowledge leakage and weak productivity growth - ranked 24th among 33 advanced economies by the International Institute of Management Development, as of 2015.

McDougall says knowledge leakage from research and innovation activity is two to three times worse in the UK than Canada, while in the US, its size and defence structure offsets the leakage.

“The US is so big that anything could work there. Canada and the UK don’t have that privilege. The UK has strong defence research but it’s disconnected from private business,” says McDougall. “Germany and Switzerland are the strongest performers and they tend to have a strategy in place providing high-level guidance.”

For McDougall, a country that possesses strong universities, a skilled workforce, several multinational enterprises and specific national advantages are the bedrock upon which an effective innovation strategy can be built.  He is particularly interested in exploring how to strengthen experiential learning capacity which he sees as “really necessary” for a small yet prosperous nation like Canada, as well as bolstering risk management skills to lessen the impact of knowledge leakage.

“We have to recognize that a strategy for the country is really important … We need to get people to hold on to their companies and grow them more. I worry very much about that,” says McDougall. “The lack of multinationals (in Canada) is a real hole so companies have a hard time getting into supply chains … The NRC could play a role.”

RTOs are key innovation lynchpins

For McDougall, research and technology organizations (RTOs) are an essential component of any effective innovation strategy. To that end, while president of the Alberta Research Council (now a branch of Alberta Innovates) he founded and chaired Innoventures Canada (I-CAN) which seeks to link the nation’s RTO’s in an applied R&D network geared to industry needs. As RTOs tend to be provincially based, their effectiveness and impact are dependent upon provincial support which tends to be uneven.

In Canada, McDougall says RTOs are somewhat fragile. He says the NRC (the largest and only federally supported RTO) has been treated fairly well but many face budget challenges that are causing pressures. In Newfoundland, the Research and Development Corp was taken in-house and Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures (now part of the consolidated Alberta Innovates) is struggling. Quebec is a bright spot with both the National Optics Institute and the Centre de recherche industrielle du Québec (CRIQ) flourishing with adequate financial support.

“The crucial issue for RTOs is they are intended to be economic development instruments and in the absence of that mandate, they can end up losing capacity,” says McDougall. “They offer high value-add between good ideas and the marketplace in non-IT areas that have high levels of risk.”

Canadian innovation shortcomings

  • Innovation is a messy, complex process but public policy in Canada treats it as the logical result of a discovery-based linear process.
  • Mismatched public funding of innovation exaggerates deficiencies and weaknesses in critical elements of the innovation system.
  • Canada’s research and innovation system weakly aligned with critical issues, needs and opportunities.
  • Canada does not take advantage of available research and technology organizations (RTO) which possess significant, industrial-scale technology development infrastructure.
  • The relative lack of large, Canadian-based global firms makes is difficult for Canadian innovators to link to global value chains through domestic channels.
  • A work force deficient in the practical knowledge, skills and experience required for technological innovation, particularly taking technologies, products, processes and systems from development through to application and commercialization.




Other News

Events For Leaders in
Science, Tech, Innovation, and Policy

Discuss and learn from those in the know at our virtual and in-person events.

See Upcoming Events

You have 1 free article remaining.
Don't miss out - start your free trial today.

Start your FREE trial    Already a member? Log in


By using this website, you agree to our use of cookies. We use cookies to provide you with a great experience and to help our website run effectively in accordance with our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.