Universities and the Innovation Equation

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There’s been a lot of talk lately about how universities can contribute to innovation in the Canadian economy. In the discussion, it’s easy to focus on research and commercialization. What is often lost, though, is the most important part of the innovation equation: our human capital.

In its recent economic survey of Canada, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), states that levels of education are directly linked to innovative activity. Those with more education are better able to absorb and spread new ideas and are more likely to take risks—skills that are at the heart of innovation.

It may seem more exciting to talk about a satellite that’s opening new windows to the universe, a new treatment for hard-to-diagnose heart failure or the latest smartphone app. But innovations such as these would not have made it to the marketplace without having intelligent, educated and visionary people in the right places at the right time to drive the process – and economy – forward.

Consider this:

According to the OECD, Canada is a leader in educating a skilled workforce and is internationally recognized for quality research. Still, when it comes to productivity, we are falling behind. Canada has not enjoyed gains in productivity for many years.

What’s not adding up? Why is Canada not able to transform world-class education system into a highly productive workforce and economy?

In a speech at Queen’s University earlier this year, Tiff Macklem, senior deputy governor of the Bank of Canada pointed out: “Education improves the quality of management, and the quality of management influences investment in new technologies, in the introduction of new processes and in the development of new markets.”

While universities are graduating students with extraordinary problem-solving, critical and creative-thinking skills, too few students are continuing on to graduate school and they are not moving into positions to help lead the private sector to new levels of productivity and economic growth.

Canada, according to the OECD, has the highest attainment of college degrees; however, we are slightly average when it comes to attainment of university degrees. And when it comes to masters and PhDs, we are at the bottom third.

Part of the problem is supply: Our graduates are active participants in the creation of knowledge; however, Canadian universities need to produce more graduate students with the specialized skills to advance into leadership positions in the private sector, which ultimately drives innovation. And industry needs to do its part by valuing and recruiting students with advanced degrees. Today, basic research is nearly exclusively conducted in universities as large corporations have shut down research parks or re-directed their R&D efforts towards more directly applied research that builds on fundamental work done in universities. Economic innovation thus relies crucially on university-based research even though knowledge is predominantly commercialized through private corporations.

So, what can we do to ensure that industry has a steady supply of highly educated graduates who can lead companies to innovate, explore and succeed?

First of all, we can help students enhance their academic excellence with entrepreneurship programs that include a healthy dose of business and communications expertise. Mentorships and internships also build understanding and confidence about real-world challenges.

Second, we can make sure students are sharing their research and ideas before they graduate by publishing, attending conferences and by posting their work online and in open-access databases that are searchable across the globe. This helps them connect with the private sector and demonstrate their value, which will hopefully influence hiring strategies over time.

We must also continue to promote interdisciplinary endeavours. New ideas are not just coming from the STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—world. Graduate-level social scientists are helping create sound public policy to keep up with the pace of innovation.

And, finally, let’s not forget the value of unfettered inquiry. Students who immerse themselves in a search for new knowledge learn far more than a solution to one problem. They learn how to think critically and how to translate ideas into action. As the OECD says, it is important that risk-taking be encouraged at all levels of education and that we create an environment for our students that drives and rewards curiosity.

For a nation faced with the challenge of ensuring its best ideas are being used for the greatest good, there is no debate. Investment in people will always pay the highest dividends.