The government needs to commit to innovation

About a month ago, during a government simulcast Federal Ministers Allan Rock and Jane Stewart launched a laudable, if nebulous, government initiative on Canada’s innovation strategy for the decade to come. The media’s reaction was subdued and predictable. The National Post decided the story was front page material and claimed Rock said “Canada is in decline.” The Globe and Mail, deciding the figure skating scandal was more deserving, buried the story on page 10.

So what is the role of government in helping the growth of Canada’s economy, particularly in the expansion of our ever more important IT industry?

If the media scrum after the announcement is any indication, not a whole hell of a lot. The first four or five questions directed at Rock were more interested in his stormy relationship with Finance Minister Paul Martin than the substance of the announcement. When the issue of the day was finally raised it was more in the form of cryptic questions about leaky school roofs than whether the government’s initiative is achievable.

Before anyone says the government should stay out of innovation, save some monetary incentives, let me say one word: Internet. Most IT people now admit the Internet was hardly the spawn of free market capitalism but rather of government. Without the basics set in place decades ago, it is unlikely the Web would exist today. Many basic technologies which led to the Internet’s explosive growth, such as Web browsers, were born of academic research, often government funded.

So what exactly should be the government’s role in keeping Canada competitive?

In true Red Book fashion, Industry Canada’s Achieving Excellence and Knowledge Matters strategies are vague to the point of being sardonically impressive.

One target is to have Canada rank among the top five nations in R&D performance by 2010. There are few who would malign this goal. But the government’s vision lacks precision. It wants to provide more incentives to small- and medium-sized enterprises to adopt and develop leading-edge innovations. To do this the government “will consider providing support to the National Research Council of Canada’s Industrial Research Assistance Program,” to help SMEs. Here in lies the problem. The whole report is full of the “will consider.”

Now I know as well as the next person that governments never like to paint themselves into a corner (after all they invented the trail balloon) but for once, how about going out on a limb and actually committing to something?

If Canada is to remain near the top in terms of technological development, we will also need a far more educated work force.

Through to 2010, the government wants the number of PhD and Master’s students to increase by five per cent a year. To do so, it will “provide financial incentives to students.” When the issue of specific funding was brought up, Rock retracted into his political shell and spoke about how he, the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister would sit down and talk.

Is it too much to ask them to be truly forthcoming?

The government can play a role in innovation. Beyond being a cheerleader, it can keep technology at the forefront of public debate. Industry almost never catches the public eye. There are too many companies for the public to keep track of and when they do attract attention it is usually because they did something stupid causing them to be perceived as greedy, thoughtless automatons.

Canada has its work cut out. Countries around the world are quickly catching up and even surpassing us.

It is time for the government to shed its traditional vagueness and put its money where its mouth is. To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, “Show me the money.”