To support an innovation system, funders must themselves be innovators

Dr. Marc Fortin
Vice-President, Research Partnerships
Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada

Canada is a world-leader in the generation of knowledge and ideas. and investments made by organizations that support research and innovation has been money well spent in delivering significant benefits to Canadians. To address the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century, these organizations must be innovators in their own right – improving their programs so that they support connections and partnerships across disciplines and organizations. Continued success and benefits for Canada will mean designing funding programs so they not only support the creation of knowledge but also the mobilization of that knowledge in solving increasingly complex challenges facing Canada and Canadians.

In part, Government funding for research mitigates “market failures”, that is, insufficient resources in part of a system. Traditionally, research support programs define objectives and establish metrics for monitoring specific results, such as increases in the number of trainees, patents, company revenue or jobs. These metrics do a good job of measuring program performance, but fall short in measuring overall systems effects and how one program contributes to a more robust national innovation system.

A national system of innovation has interdependencies among ideas, talent, research, funding and other inputs. So, increasing support for innovation is not necessarily a simple question of “scaling up” one program. Effectively connecting different components of the system (e.g. research, training, commercialization) is needed. Connecting public interventions and investments from different departments or programs that support innovation may be just as important to national performance. For example, it is not just about how many trainees are generated, or the skills acquired, but whether some of that highly skilled research talent is moving from university labs to companies.

NSERC is currently redesigning six programs that connect academic research expertise in Canadian universities with other (knowledge user) organizations. These programs were initially designed to intervene in different parts of the system: research experiences for students, industrial chairs, collaborative research with industry partners, etc. To enhance impact from its investments, NSERC is consolidating and connecting these program components to allow for seamless integration of the necessary elements to initiate, and then grow, research initiatives that can generate benefits for Canada.

NSERC is designing the next generation of research partnerships programs with a more open program architecture and a single point of entry. We need to provide knowledge generators and users greater flexibility to build research partnerships that are “fit for purpose” for their challenge or problems, and to allow them to grow their initiatives by evolving the partnerships and the projects to achieve system impact.

Improving support for innovation is more than creating, modifying or consolidating individual funding programs. Individual mandates or programs can collectively have greater impact by connecting at the meta level. This could result in a “behaviour” of greater collaboration between funding organizations if given the right flexibility in terms of deadlines, review processes and other criteria at the program level.

Realizing impact on national challenges will require deliberate connections and concerted interventions. The problems that Canadians seek to address through innovation are increasingly complex and inter-related. Climate change, resource management and other challenges call for multidisciplinary research efforts and, therefore, broader partnerships and the mobilization of talent and ideas. In addition, knowledge generation has become increasingly distributed across organizations and internationally. Collaboration among research funding programs could play a facilitating role in supporting researchers as well as decision makers to access expertise across this distributed system. The users of knowledge need this.

Innovation requires re-thinking assumptions and disrupting the accepted conventions to create a better way of doing things. Supporting innovation often dictates courses of action that are perhaps unnatural to government departments or organizations focused on their individual legislated responsibilities and accountabilities. The current diverse and complementary mandates of Canada’s funding organizations should cover many of the needs of our innovation system. However, greater coordination and collaboration amongst funding agencies by finding the right connection points will be the most effective means of ensuring that research investments achieve the greatest impact for Canada.