OTTAWA–The conference was ostensibly about research and development, but the word that was repeated like a mantra was “innovation.”

At the Research Money conference on Tuesday called Meeting Canada’s R&D Challenge: Moving from 15th to fifth in Global R&D, delegates spoke of innovations in business, innovations in education, innovations in research and innovations in bringing innovations to market.

The ambitious goal of moving Canada into the top five countries in R&D performance by 2010 came not from industry or the scientific community, but from the government, in the Throne Speech delivered in January 2001. But the conference delegates seemed to view the goal as an admirable and desirable one, despite its many challenges.

Current economic conditions notwithstanding, Canada needs to get up to speed with R&D, according to keynote speaker Adam Chowaniec, CEO of Tundra Semiconductor Corp. We’re heading towards a more knowledge-based economy, and he says the economy will emerge changed at the end of this downturn, and we must take action now in order to remain competitive in the future.

“Everyone knows R & D is the path to wealth,” Chowaniec says. “The decisions we make in the next few years are key to the coming decades.”

Universities have the heavy responsibility of producing the most crucial element of R&D: highly qualified people, or simply HQP. They’re the egg that comes before the chicken of bigger funding. Nortel Networks Corp. vice-president Claudine Simson says that once we have the qualified people, the research money will follow.

So to meet the funding challenge, the first hurdle is to double Canada’s number of HQP — from about 90,000 to about 180,000, according to John Clarkson, Assistant Deputy Minister of Manitoba’s Research, Innovation, Technology Division.

Encouraging graduate students won’t be enough to meet that goal. Simson suggests that in order to build the kind of workforce we need, we must begin at the kindergarten level and push towards a culture of research, science and technology.

Government will have to make some innovations, too, according to Tom Brzustowski, president of the National Science and Engineering Research Council.

“The challenge to the government of Canada is to catalyze large R&D investment and maintain it through policies and actions,” Brzustowski says.

Government must provide the kinds of policies that improve the tax and regulatory structures and encourage entrepreneurship, says Perrin Beatty, president and CEO of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters.

But the big job still falls to the private sector, where the products and services get brought to market. The industry seems to have a pretty clear idea of its role.

“Business has to take the lead and have a passion for innovation,” says John Saabas, vice president of engineering with Pratt & Whitney Canada.

Beatty is also on the innovation bandwagon. “At the end of the day, the real issue is innovation. What can we do to become more innovative?”

But Beatty also recognizes the inherent danger in making Canada’s R&D goal a measurement of what is put into the system, rather than what comes out.

“It’s an input measurement, not an output,” he says of the 15th to 5th challenge in R&D funding. “The government thinks that if you stuff money into the top, innovation comes out the bottom.”

But for Beatty, and the bottom line, the end result is key to getting funding. “You won’t get private sector investment without economic returns on that investment.”

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