On R&D again

We talk a lot about R&D on this blog so this theme may seem redundant to some but I think it is well worth fleshing out. I was talking to a senior government official the other day and he said we ‘can’t compete’ with Ontario when it comes to funding and exploiting R&D. He specifically mentioned the $25 million given to a research chair to attract Richard Florida to study creativity at the U of T.

He is right and wrong. Certainly we can’t compete with the sheer volume of research being done in Ontario. We can’t compete with the huge capacity for R&D in the universities and institutions. Mostly, we can’t compete with the billions the Feds spend in R&D in the National Capital Region. I wonder if any other country in the western world concentrates as much of its federal government R&D spending in a single locale – but I digress.

But I think we should and can do a couple of things:

1. Commit to become competitive on overall R&D spending. And I don’t mean a silly marketing gimmick. Bernard Lord set up the NBIF and said we would be in the top three provinces in Canada for R&D spending per capita within 10 years. We are now over five years into his ‘plan’ and still dead last. You can’t make statements like that without knowing how you are going to achieve the goal. New Brunswick should commit to getting its R&D spending up to the national level within 10 years and then, unlike Lord’s plan, actually put tactics in place to make that happen. I am partial to using government incentives to attract far more private sector R&D but I realize that for some of the early stage research, there needs to be government dollars rather than tax or other incentives.

2. Focus. You can’t compete with the billions spent by Ontario but when you do spend, you should be competitive. For example, take North Carolina for a moment. It is about the same size as New Brunswick relative to the US overall population. It’s economic situation has some parallels to New Brunswick. Yet, North Carolina is considered to be a world leader in textiles R&D. Nowadays they are focusing on the use of textiles in advanced products well beyond clothing. How? Because they focused. New Brunswick should put most of its eggs in a few baskets. When it comes to R&D that matters. We desperately need to get beyond the carving up the few dollars and doling it out far and wide attitude that has plagued us for so long. If we want to compete with Ontario on creativity research (and I recommend not), let’s go out and find the next Richard Florida and endow him/her with $25 million right here in New Brunswick.

I used the example of Internet security before but I will remind you. In the early 2000s New Brunswick had a handful of interesting firms focused on innovative approaches to Web security (I think they are mostly still around). I called for serious R&D funding to see if we could build a little cluster of Web security activity. Maybe attract Symantec. Maybe grow a few innovative firms. But guess who attracted the world’s leading academic researcher in Web security? Dalhousie. Using mostly federal R&D money. New Brunswick, instead, put a little NRC money into a couple of joint projects but that was it. How about $25 million to set up chair in Internet Security at UNB?