Innovation – its not just about money

By Robert Hickson 16/08/2013 1

I went to fellow sciblogger Shaun Hendy’s and the late Paul Callaghan’s Get off the grass book launch yesterday at Victoria University. Well done Shaun, great to see the science and innovation theme continuing to be being pushed out beyond the academic and government circles! Pity the lecture hall wasn’t packed.

I haven’t read the book yet (and had to rush away to catch a train without buying one), so this post is just a quick reflection on some of the issues or points raised in his talk and by some of the questions. Peter Griffin provides a review on his blog.

Shaun only had 45 minutes so obviously couldn’t give a detailed overview of the book. He focussed on how the Scandinavian countries have passed us in science investments and economic diversification, and some of his analyses (familiar to readers of his A Measure of Science blog) of NZ’s innovation network and what can be done to improve it.

The call by Shaun to invest more in science and innovation has been made many times before without too much effect. The government (and some business leaders) will continue to say they have increased spending on science and innovation, the opposition will say that they will increase it, and researchers (and some business leaders) will say “but you haven’t invested enough” and/or “but more needs to go to basic research.”

The window of opportunity for really big increases in science funding (of the kind seen in Finland as the Soviet Union disintegrated) seems to have passed for the short term. The time when it was most possible was shortly after the financial crisis as a way of stimulating long term economic growth. Without another existential crisis big investments from the private sector, or a non-partisan long term strategy about innovation (that looks beyond just investment in science), its hard to imagine  a government of any political shading opening the monetary sluice gates.

And focussing on just the government investment in science is too simplistic. As Shaun and Paul point out there is an innovation system, which is more than just research funding. The current government has an innovation work stream as part of its business growth agenda, but no innovation strategy. It does attempt to influence other parts of  the system through, for example, Callaghan Innovation and other encouragements to get business to think about research and innovation more seriously. To me “agenda” and “work stream” imply short-termism rather than long term coordinated planning and actions. You may disagree with how the government is going about supporting business R&D, but most agree continuing to do what we have previously done won’t get us to a better place innovation wise.

Shaun also highlighted what he called the “innovation network” in NZ – who’s collaborating with whom on patents – and the need to make that network a virtual city of 4 million to improve the connectedness and, consequently, levels of innovation. But what he described was really just the inventor network. Patents are only a proxy for innovation – if they aren’t developed into a product, process or service then there isn’t really an innovation.

Steven Johnson concluded that chance favours the connected mind. I’m not convinced that just getting our inventors collaborating more with each other (with more money maybe thrown in) will do the trick. The innovation ecosystem is more than the sum and connection of schools of scientists, engineers and other inventors feeding on the financial equivalent of plankton. They also be connected to the needs and eye for opportunity of businesses and communities

Others have noted that innovation systems requires “hardware” (assets) and “software” (culture). Assets are people and things. Culture is the more difficult aspect to develop. One question after the talk was about the negativity a returning budding entrepreneur encountered here, and another referenced the innovation headwinds facing the US posited by Robert Gordon (which I mentioned previously).

For me the culture aspect in NZ is perhaps our biggest innovation “headwind”. As in other aspects of NZ life, we often instinctively turn to the government for help, risking dependency. That’s probably starting to change as more entrepreneurs develop here, and the number of well moneyed  individuals and foundations investing in science and innovation grows. We are also seeing a growing number of young and older scientists interested in converting their interests into something more than published papers. So that’s positive, and Get off the grass helps publicise some of these successes.

The biggest culture changes will be required by political parties, research organisations, and some firms. As some of the Scandinavian (and Asian) countries have done, NZ political parties need to work together to develop a bipartisan long term innovation strategy so every one has a common view of what we are aiming for and how we are going to get there. And it needs to be about outcomes (such as having x% of our exports “elaborately manufactured” items,  or what ever), rather than outputs (such as business R&D reaching 1% of GDP, or “being in the top half of the OECD for investment in R&D”). That’s not likely to happen without a groundswell of public and/or business demand, which is where Get off the grass has an important place.

Research organisations need to think more about how they manage their components of the innovation system as well.  The Crown Research Institutes now have more flexibility in some of the research projects they can work on and how they undertake them. But their governance boards and management structures don’t appear to have changed enough all to fully realise the opportunities of this or to catch up with the changing systems of science and innovation. Ditto for Universities. The government and funding bodies can also be loathe to devolve too much freedom to them.

Firms also can have too much of a dependancy on the government for research support, and a complacency about what they want to achieve and the role science and research can help them if they have ambition.

Shaun closed his presentation with a threat “don’t force me to write another book!” More analysis isn’t what is needed now. More research funding may be nice, but scientists and organisations need to look beyond that and think how they could innovate better anyway.


One Response to “Innovation – its not just about money”

  • Oh dear.
    Prof Hendy wouldn’t dream of submitting a paper on physics without it being peer reviewed. Clearly this book hasn’t been.
    It’s rife with selective use of data, false analogies and non-sequiturs.
    No doubt it will sell quite well.