Canadian Light Source, University of Saskatchewan. Photo credit: David Stobbe

The University Innovation Challenge

Canada relies on post-secondary researchers for far more of its research and development than most other OECD countries.

By Peter W.B. Phillips, Distinguished Professor, Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy; and Researcher, Centre for the Study of Science and Innovation Policy

Canada relies on post-secondary researchers for far more of its research and development than most other OECD countries. Canada invests 0.66% of GDP through the higher education sector, compared with 0.42% in the OECD overall; the higher education sector undertakes more than 40% of Canada’s R&D compared with less than 18% in the rest of the OECD. 

Given that, one wonders whether our university, hospital and polytechnic systems are up to the challenge. 

Innovation can best be explored by drawing a metaphor from our biologist colleagues who assert that selective pressure, forced breeding and hybrid vigor are the basis for sustained and cumulative growth. Evolutionary biologist Stuart Kauffman, one of the complexity theorists from the Santé Fe Institute, stresses that the rate and scope of change in any system is a function of the number of adjacent potential opportunities.1 The more that people and institutions are forced to interact with others, both from their own field and from beyond their field, the more likely the process of hybridization and creativity can work.

Some would assert that universities are particularly challenged in this context. Stephen Shapin, a historian of science from Harvard, reminds us that the academy is at root a medieval, monastic system that is about conservation and transmission of the stock of knowledge. In that context, our peer review, tenure and promotion, departmentalized structures and disciplinary communities have worked to refine and deepen our knowledge, but in an increasingly narrow and disconnected way. While we have made some effort to rewrite the rules and redesign the academy in the last 80 years, most of the underlying structures still encourage conformity and isolation. 

Shapin asserts that today’s research university emerged from the German model developed in the 1890s, which was then translated around the world at the end of the Second World War. The success of the Manhattan Project elevated the status of scholars in the immediate post-war era. Governments, industry and NGOs, and citizens as a whole, now look to universities to engage in the exploration and resolution of real-world problems. In this way, we have opened the academy to a much greater mix of adjacent potentials, as many of us now work on real-world problems drawing on a diversity of theoretical approaches, using a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods and developing and analysing a wide array of different kinds of data and evidence.

Universities have taken up that challenge with new colleges and institutes, new interdisciplinary chairs, units and programs, and problem-based research teams. Each of these new interdisciplinary structures works to increase the adjacent potentials, initially within the divisions created by the natural scientists, social sciences and humanities, but increasingly between those divisions and beyond. Ultimately, universities are being challenged to build large scale capacity to address real-world problems—in Canada, most of the new granting money in the past two decades has been directed to that end.

Putting together teams with different worldviews and disciplinary backgrounds is both challenging and potentially rewarding. But the value we get depends on how we design the systems. A common model is to put natural scientists together with social scientists and humanists. As scholars engaged in this effort, we tend to fall into one of four archetypes of collaboration: 

First, we can follow the lead of sociologist Bruno Latour and do arms-length, fly-on-the-wall studies, using a mix of disinterested observation and external evaluation and validation through benchmarking, cost-benefit analysis and other organized projectlevel tools. In effect, scientists become the lab rats for social scientists. 

Second, at times social scientists are included in science teams to ensure the process is responsible and reflexive. The Human Genome Project created this model and now ELSI, ELSA and GE3LS investigators (who study ethical, environmental, economic, legal and social aspects and impacts of new technology) are embedded in most large-scale science ventures to act as the conscience and moral compass for the scientific effort. In effect, social science research at worst is an ‘indulgence’ and at best a sagacious advisor. 

Third, many science project leads are fully aware that their funders want to see measurable outcomes, in that their scientific advances are taken up and used in the market or society. In that context, social scientists often are enlisted as agents or contracted service providers to undertake studies that examine pathways to impact, assess freedom to operate, offer market analyses or advise on how to navigate the regulatory process. Many embedded GE3LS teams in Genome Canada projects end up doing this. 

Fourth, probably the highest level of engagement involves social scientists acting as true research partners and collaborators, where they both undertake introspective assessments of the research agenda, discovery process and policy effects—including policy and research design, decision making, implementation and evaluation—and translate those findings to the management table of the larger scientific enterprise. A range of large-scale ventures aspire to that level. In Canada, we have supported a range of purposeful research ventures under the Networks of Centres of Excellence Program, SSHRC’s Partnership Grants, Genome Canada’s Large Scale Applied Research Project competitions and the Canada First Research Excellence Fund. 

The key lesson to be drawn from all of our efforts to proactively amalgamate social and natural scientists is that design matters—a lot. Just putting different groups together does not necessarily create real actionable adjacent potentials. Changing how we see each other and engaging in real-time discourse and management is key to realizing new possibilities—and the foundation for creative discovery. Canada’s future may depend on how we realize this potential.

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1 Kauffman, Stuart (1995). At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195111309.