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Building a stronger culture of innovation

NOTE: In the past weeks, Canada's universities have been sharing their visions and priorities with readers through this column, in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. This is the fifth and final column. Paul Davidson is president of the AUCC.

By Paul Davidson

A patient gets faster cancer treatment. A child enjoys more nutritional food. A family saves money by using solar-heated water. Every day, research conducted at Canadian universities improves the quality of life in Canada and around the world. Still, when it comes to innovation, Canada is only getting average grades. In the new global knowledge economy, that just won't cut it.

Talent is not the problem. Canada's public investments in research and innovation have increased through the economic downturn, and we can be proud of an outstanding talent pool being developed by Canada's universities. The number of Canadian university graduates is increasing and we're experiencing strong growth in the important area of doctoral degrees in science. In fact, Canada leads the world in the growth rate of PhD degrees in the sciences, and comes second only to Sweden in the growth of doctorates in engineering. That's great news for an economy that depends on high-level skills and talent.

We are proud of the range of innovative ways in which enterprises already benefit from collaborating with universities, including new products and exports that have grown out of university research – from improved crop varieties of peas, beans and lentils, to more efficient and safer aircraft, to revolutionary cancer treatments that reduce wait times and treatment costs.

What Canada is missing is a culture of innovation in business. Research and development (R&D) spending by business has been decreasing in real terms since 2006. Canadian private-sector investment in R&D as a share of gross domestic product is about one-half that of the United States, one-third that of Sweden and one-quarter that of Korea. This is not how Canada becomes a global leader in innovation. The alternative to strengthening Canada's private-sector investment in R&D is the unpalatable prospect of an underachieving economy, unrealized human potential and unsatisfactory quality of life.

Better engagement of the private-sector in research is fundamental to Canada becoming an innovation leader.

Where universities can make a real difference for business is in working with partners to improve the transfer of knowledge to the marketplace. Among the keys to making this happen are internships and other student exchanges.

Internships are a bridge from studies to real-world experiences for our university students. They help students prepare for meaningful careers while giving companies insight into the latest science and technologies related to their products and services. Finding more avenues of exchange between business and universities at all levels will help build a stronger culture of innovation.

Canada has the talent pool to be an innovation leader. But increased collaboration to transfer knowledge to the private sector and increased private-sector investment are vital to achieving our potential as
a nation.