Dear god no - not a federal "innovation" ministry

As you may have noticed from past posts, I have a very jaded view of the term "innovation." It is a term used by industry to mean "lets introduce something new to make money" which, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that when business talks to government, "innovation" swings to "focus government R&D efforts towards to subsidized short-term industrial efforts to create something we can monetize." If that is too long for you, it simply means science loses.

Which is why I am somewhat horrified to read the Globe and Mail article entitled "Tech alliance pushes for federal innovation ministry."

Don't get me wrong - there is some good stuff in there. Revamp Industry Canada to better reflect a move towards fast moving high-tech industries? Right with you. Move the Science, Tech and Innovation work under a full top-level minister? I'm totally good with that. Focus the ministry exclusively on "innovation?"

Not so much.

The article as written, and what I have seen about the proposal, both suggest a focus on business innovation in Canada which, as we all know, is horribly broken by the Conservative's misguided and ill-informed attempts to reform it. The problem is - as the article notes - that the Conservative efforts disincentivized business R&D by trying to force government and academia to do R&D for business. Since government and academic researchers are largelyill-equipped to dobusiness R&D, this was doomed to fail. Worse, while failing, the effort would take down Canada's extremely successful public interest and basic science efforts.

So, as written, it is a bad idea. Good goals, and some good, realistic, ideas, but - shall we say - incomplete. So I'll put forward my $0.05 (since we got rid of the penny, adding my two cents would be less than useful).

By all means elevate innovation to a full minister, but realize that innovation does not stand alone. It needs basic, curiosity-based, and applied science at its base. So....

  • Create a "Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation," where science is explicitly included and appreciated.
  • Put basic science - and science that is either too risky or too expensive for business to be able to do - back into NRC's mandate.
  • By all means, let us keep a dedicated cadre of scientists and engineers at NRC to help transition this basic science work to industry, but reduce its footprint while increasing its focus.
  • Remove the requirements for industry involvement in NSERC, CIHR, and SSHRC grants.
  • Create specific, separate, programs (i.e. money pots) for industry-affiliated R&D. Make this money in addition to existing NSREC/CIHR/SSHRC money, and make sure that industry has skin in the game by making it 50/50 government/industry funded.
  • Don't try to pick winners/losers in technologies. By all means invest in some strategic areas, but allow the scientists and opportunity to look in other areas as well - you never know what will happen.
  • Ensure that government scientists/engineers are able to transition their ideas from the lab to market through an incubator of sorts. Details will be tricky, but the scientists doing the work may see potential that external industry may not see, and we should allow these scientists/engineers an opportunity to run with the idea.
  • Recognize that other science-based departments need to thrive, but need to focus on science for the social good. So fund them appropriately, and give them back the mandates that were removed by the Conservatives.

These are just a few ideas, and they are presented not to replace the CATA proposal, but to refine and augment it. And honestly, the specifics may not even be good. But I feel strongly that a top-level ministry cannot be focused on Innovation, and only have science as a subordinate focus. Science, by its nature, is about the future while Innovation, by *its* nature, is about the now. The every-moving fuzzy region in between is where opportunity exists, and we must be sure that this fuzzy region exists by nurturing both the science and the innovation that border it.