Hey, look: A richer, smarter Canada - Macleans.ca

Hey, look: A richer, smarter Canada

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My print column this week will perhaps not draw the big crowds I get when I make fun of a politician chosen at random, but if nothing else it’s an unusually important column to me. The key is in this sentence: “Our university labs aren’t what’s broken.”

Some of you may have noticed I’ve spent a half decade writing about university research. I regard pure research as one of the really important public goods a society can pursue, and to me it’s quite clear that over the long term new ideas are a potent driver of both economic and social progress. But the two new studies I cite in my column, and especially the extraordinary work of Peter Nicholson and his crew at the Council of Canadian Academies, finally succeeded in pounding an important idea into my thick skull: it’s not a lack of new ideas that is hindering productivity gains in Canada. Nor are Canadian entrepreneurs at a loss because the ideas floating around are maddeningly esoteric and inapplicable to business problems.

The problem isn’t at the front end of the idea pipeline at all. The problem is not one of supply but of demand. And while it’s still very important for advocates of science research to keep a wary eye on government policy in that area, Canada’s not going to make great productivity gains by doing spectacularly more science. What’s needed is for Canadian business to start making far more frequent use of new ideas. And what’s needed to on that front isn’t more “help” from government so much as a push, because what’s been holding our private sector back isn’t obstacles so much as a stubborn complacency.

Anyway I lay all the thinking out in the print column, linked above. I’ll be returning to these themes in days to come.