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Margin Notes

We need a new way to measure innovation

Less reliance on intellectual property and more emphasis on other metrics is needed, says law prof.


Canada is perceived to be underperforming in terms of innovation. The Conference Board of Canada, for example, gave the country a D grade for innovation in a 2010 report, How Canada Performs.

However, University of Ottawa law professor Jeremy de Beer questions whether that’s a fair grade, and the reason he does so is because of the metrics used to measure innovation. “Maybe we’re looking at the wrong things,” he said yesterday (Jan. 31) in a talk on Parliament Hill as part of the Big Thinking lecture series put on by the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Professor de Beer noted that many of the key indicators used to measure innovation are related to intellectual property statistics (primarily, the licensing of patents). But he believes IP statistics by themselves may not be an accurate indicator of innovation performance. “We need to rethink the role of intellectual property in the innovation system and how to move from an over-reliance on intellectual property metrics to new ways of thinking about science and progress,” he said.

Much of the current thinking on innovation in Canada, he says, is that we need to have stronger levels of IP protection or we’ll risk losing R&D investment. But high levels of IP protection can create their own problems. He said one need look no further for evidence of this than the mobile communications industry, where “basically everybody is suing everybody else” because of an incredible web of patents held by the various companies involved.

“Intellectual property by itself provides exclusive rights to stop competitors from doing particular things, and that can provide an incentive to invest in research and development,” said Professor de Beer. “The danger is it can also act as a disincentive, it can create barriers to entry, create thickets of rights.”

Professor de Beer cites approvingly a recent report by the Canadian International Council called Rights and Rents: Why Canada Must Harness its Intellectual Property Resources. The report concludes that “Canada is adept at launching innovative ventures, but often fails to recognize the value in their IP.” It argues that our current approach to IP is “short sighted” and that the country is paying a steep price as a consequence. It strongly urges the government to integrate a national IP strategy into an overall innovation framework and to undertake a broad review of its current patent policy.

For his part, Professor de Beer calls for a new way of thinking about IP called “open innovation,” which he calls “a new way to unleash IP resources.” Open innovation does not mean that you do away with IP protection, he said, but rather that you use IP rights to facilitate collaboration rather than as a tool of exclusion. “We need to have people and ideas working together,” he said. “This thinking hasn’t filtered into our intellectual property policy making.”

Returning to the idea of innovation metrics, Professor de Beer said he and his colleagues have been working with the World Intellectual Property Organization to look at new ways of assessing the impact of IP and copyright in economic, social and cultural ways, rather than primarily in economic terms. “What we’ve started to do is build the principles for the types of indicators that we need to be looking at. Indicators of successful innovation policy need to move beyond statistics. We need to take a more holistic view.”

A greater emphasis needs to be placed on qualitative research, he continued, “and that can be an excellent complement to statistics and quantitative research used thus far. This will help us develop a better understanding of what effect the policies are doing in practice, to get a better understanding of how to think about innovation.”

Professor de Beer ended with a fervent pitch in favour of social sciences and humanities research, “because it helps us to understand how these innovations are put into practice by emphasizing the human aspects of science and technology – because that’s what it’s all about, ultimately, at the end of the day. The reason that science and technology is important, the reason we want innovation, is to make people’s lives better. It is about human behaviour. … We need to put more value into social science research.”

The Big Thinking Lecture was co-sponsored this month by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada as part of its “Day on the Hill,” a day-long series of meetings between university presidents and Parliamentarians, senior civil servants and other stakeholders. There were at least 25 university heads in Ottawa for the day. The focus of the meetings was to underline the role of Canada’s universities in building a culture of innovation in Canada, said AUCC spokesperson Helen Murphy, with a special emphasis on the benefits to Canadians of private sector-university partnerships.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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