Editorial: Canada’s researchers are asking for a more ambitious innovation approach. Is Ottawa listening?

Radical changes to policy tend to come at times of crisis. It was during the First World War that Canada introduced the first income taxes and women gained the right to vote in federal elections after fighting for universal suffrage for decades. The extreme crisis of the Second World War, meanwhile, brought investment in science and technology research that laid the groundwork for microwave ovens, computers and modern navigation systems.

Today, researchers and businesses appear to be ready for more policy experimentation and leadership from the federal government after more than a year of lockdowns and economic disruption from COVID-19. Earlier this month, Mark Lowey reported on the desire of many researchers and business leaders for an industrial strategy from Ottawa, including a proposal for a DARPA-like entity that can take on high-risk, high-reward projects. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), founded in 1958, takes a mission-oriented approach and is credited with contributing to the creation of the Internet and GPS.

Lowey found that Canada has taken a rather conservative and uninspired approach to innovation. The researchers he surveyed found that Canadian governments have provided plenty of “inputs,” such as research funding and institutions, but we are far behind in “outputs,” such as creative technology and knowledge. They spoke about taxpayer-funded technology going to foreign tech companies for free, only to be commercialized and sold back to Canadians.

Would a Canadian DARPA work? It could disappoint, especially if designed poorly. The UK’s own proposed DARPA-like institute, ARIA, has concerned critics with its lack of focus, with one researcher saying that it could be a “solution in search of a problem.” The innovation superclusters are an example of an ambitious program that targeted Canada’s strengths but have since received criticism for lacklustre results.

The point, though, is to investigate our options, to innovate and experiment, to drop structures that aren’t working and adopt others that prove more promising. If not a Canadian DARPA, the government can investigate open science arrangements or experiment with HIBAR initiatives that combine applied and basic science to tackle societal problems. Carrying on as usual, after all, carries its own risk of being left behind while more innovative nations take the lead.

Canada’s federal government will be releasing its long-anticipated 2021 budget on April 19 — the first federal budget in more than two years. Hopefully, the Trudeau government will recognize that inaction in a time of crisis can be as risky as stepping into the unknown.