Canada, despite supporting interdisciplinary research collaboration for nearly 30 years through the Networks of Centres of Excellence Program (which ended in 2018), continues to rank poorly internationally on innovation. How can we change this situation?
When faced with a complex problem, researchers tend to apply the scientific methods they’ve been taught: dissect the problem into smaller, more manageable pieces. But in doing so, their vision of the broader challenge can become blurred. They tend to see only the first row of trees rather than the entire forest.
Then, when the forest — the problem — expands, they have difficulty integrating possible solutions in a horizontal and translational way, across disciplines and domains. This is where the potential to solve big problems lies, yet applications that cross different fields are often ignored as non-core within organizations where they emerged.
Different approaches to cross or break out of silos have been suggested using artificial intelligence. However, doing so requires the scientific understanding and drive of a development-minded human who, despite naysayers, persists and thinks of scenarios no one else has imagined.
Human entrepreneurs and invention savvy are required to forge ahead and find some way to deal with the risks. This is typically the role of technology transfer professionals in the development-of-invention chain.
In addition, we need to provide people with the knowledge and set of skills required to take advantage of new resources such as AI and big data, as cross-fertilization opportunities for R&D continue to grow.
I recently conducted an informal study for the Conseil de l’Innovation du Quebec, surveying the curricula of science, engineering and life science programs in Canadian universities. The lack of courses about subjects such as intellectual property and patent management, as part of the regular curricula, was a glaring omission.
Yet in today’s global knowledge economy, the future careers of many graduates will depend on understanding such concepts as IP strategy and commercialization. Professionals without such training have neither the skills nor an understanding of the potential for inventions arising from interdisciplinary research.
Change of mindset needed for effective innovation
One of the underlying factors for Canada’s weak innovation performance is the lack of a key resource: a mindset able to recognize potential game-changing inventions over the long term. Research takes sustained, guaranteed funding. But the country’s relatively short election cycles perpetuate a narrow, short-term vision, whether in government agencies or universities.
In addition, universities have had difficulty accepting their new role as economic development engines from their teaching and research. Some countries, such as Germany, France, the U.S. and China, have recognized the important role universities play, and have initiated both legislative and financial programs to stimulate innovation.
Without appropriate courses and skills training within academic programs, such initiatives are difficult to implement. Business schools, to their credit, are developing numerous entrepreneurship programs. It is a welcome trend that has led to the growth of incubators, business accelerators and coaching-mentorship activities.
Many scientists may not have the right mindset to become entrepreneurs, but their insight is precious as part of teams leading startups and developing breakthrough technologies. Providing post-secondary science students with IP courses and other business training would provide these students with essential interdisciplinary tools for their careers.
However, there are not enough academic courses focused on IP strategy, commercialization and transferring technologies to a market. If there were, perhaps Canada could bridge its innovation gap as measured by the OECD and other organizations.
At the same time, business-minded managers without a scientifically-grounded understanding of the power, risks and potential future of their companies’ technologies are at a disadvantage.
The entrepreneurial management toolset is quite different than the tools and skills required for technology transfer. Entrepreneurs are risk takers, often outliers. Scientists and technologists focus on the practical nuts-and-bolts of an invention. Technology transfer professionals are experts in de-risking inventions and determining where they can best fit in industrial ecosystems.
This is where the notion of teamwork is essential, and it could be encouraged with more joint science-engineering-business academic tracks.
Interdisciplinary collaboration faces new challenges
While scientists have attained considerable recognition and respect due to their deep understanding of specialized issues, they need to become an active part of management awareness of larger, more fundamental challenges affecting all technological and commercial activities.
These challenges include climate change, food and energy production, recycling in a circular economy, water management and biodiversity, to name just a few. This requires business managers, working hand-in-hand with scientists, to look at the forest — the big picture — which tends to be overlooked because of immediate technical and operational challenges.
In addition, geopolitical concerns and measures aimed at limiting leakage and exodus of key domestic technologies and talent, have brought new complexities to both academia and industry.
This has resulted in barriers being erected in what used to be a fairly collaborative, international academic open space. Traditionally, sharing of research results — being pre-competitive in nature and destined to be published — have not come with restrictions for certain countries. For example, four Alberta research universities recently suspended seeking new research partnerships with China at the request of the provincial government.
The implementation of Key Industrial Capabilities for procurement, along with new national security requirements for National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada Alliance grants, add another layer of complexity.
Given the fast-changing global research landscape, much thought needs to be given to what it takes to upgrade our traditional science and technology academic programs with new interdisciplinary offerings. This needs to happen not only at universities, but also at vocational schools and colleges that are becoming the site of fledging entrepreneurs in need of such knowledge and training.
Finally, funding for research and for Statistics Canada is urgently needed so Canada can accurately set benchmarks and measure progress on innovation. Not only do we need to break free of our silos, we need to objectively show that we have done so.
Alexandre Navarre, PhD, MBA, is an associate researcher at École de technologie supérieure in Montreal and past director of technology transfer units at McGill University and Western University.