Beware ‘Innovation-Speak’

Matthew Herder wrote a Master’s thesis on Canadian science policy some ten years ago and by the time he was done, he had sworn off the word ‘innovation.’


In Canada, since the 1980s, the term ‘innovation’ has appeared in every significant federal science policy document, save for that of the Conservative government under Brian Mulroney. Deciding ‘innovation’ wasn’t innovative enough, in 1987 the Mulroney government invented its own term—the awkward ‘InnovAction.’ I called my Master’s thesis “The Rhetoric of Innovation” and when I was finished I hoped never to type the word again.

So when ‘innovation’ appeared again and again in the #Budget2016 speech in the House of Commons and in the budget itself, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

I know why the current Liberal federal government under Justin Trudeau, like every other federal government in recent decades, used the term ‘innovation.’ I’ve probably used it in every paper I’ve written since I swore off using the term. If you work on science or technology policy, intellectual property law, or engage in practically any field of research, it’s inescapable. How can anyone be against innovation? The word serves as a powerful marker of human achievement. It signals our capacity to improve our condition through creativity, perseverance, and insight. It means something to nearly everyone and its scope to do good is as limitless as human potential.

Pictured from left to right are the Canadian Prime Ministers who, since the 1980s, have introduced a federal science policy: Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Stephen Harper, and Justin Trudeau

Pictured from left to right are the Canadian Prime Ministers who, since the 1980s, have introduced, influenced, and/or promised changes to a federal science policy: Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Stephen Harper, and Justin Trudeau

Herein lies innovation’s magic, but also its trick—a trick that governments and other actors have long traded on. While in principle boundless, in practice, ‘innovation’ has come to mean something quite narrow.

The last time a Liberal federal government published an innovation strategy was February 2002 under Jean Chrétien. At this time, the federal government offered a working definition of innovation that included “support [for] academic institutions in identifying intellectual property with commercial potential and forging partnerships with the private sector to commercialize results.” The government of the day did not reduce innovation solely to intellectual property and private sector partnerships, and yet these commercial markers of innovation had a notable impact. For example, by November 2002, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada had negotiated an increase in federal funding for research. The quid pro quo? A commitment on the part of the Association to triple the commercialization of research (as measured by intellectual property, private partnerships, and start-up companies) within ten years.

‘Innovation’ as a code for a set of commercial research practices has filtered through countless policies and funding programs ever since. Under Stephen Harper, the Conservative federal government of 2006-2015 doubled down on this approach, creating a slew of national Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. The 2012 and 2013 federal budgets tied every single dollar of new funding for research to industry partnerships. As a direct consequence of this, consultants in the business of advising institutions and researchers on how to craft grant applications reinforced the message: to be successful, the commercial potential of the research must be explicit. I remember one such consultant who advised a research group that I was part of, that the “Benefits to Canada” section of a Genome Canada application we were drafting must promise at least 1-2 patent applications and/or 1-2 industry partnerships. If not, the application likely would not get past the “Letter of Intent” stage.

The problem isn’t with intellectual property, or university-industry partnerships per se. Universities and academics have long engaged in these activities, and on occasion, they have done so responsibly. However, if, in the eyes of government and quasi-government funders, those are the only trusted markers of innovation, they will have a deeply limiting effect on what research gets funded.

The best example to illustrate this fundamental point is a relatively recent innovation that reduces infections in the operating room, called the “surgical checklist.” It cost about $1 million in research funds to show that a surgical checklist could be used effectively to reduce hospital infections regardless of the size of the hospital or its location. The estimated impact of this research in the United States alone was 15,000 lives and $1 billion in treatment costs saved per year.

Now that’s an incredibly valuable innovation. Yet, if getting the $1 million in research funding required buy-in from a private company, we might never have learned that the checklist really worked. That’s because, according to the logic of a company trying to compete in the marketplace, the value of an innovation like a checklist is difficult to capture. I’m sure a clever lawyer could draft a patent application to claim ownership over a surgical checklist, but to make money from that patent the company would have to police health care providers’ thoughts in the operating room—a futile task. More to the point, if research funding depends on the demonstrable commercial relevance of research—as it increasingly does in Canada – innovations like the surgical checklist may never get off the ground.

In the federal #Budget2016 the Liberal government committed to developing a new “Innovation Agenda.” But if governments, research funding councils, university administrators, consultants, and some academic researchers continue to understand ‘innovation’ as code for increased commercialization, then we have a serious problem. At this time, starting to undo the commercial coding of innovation policies and programs, past and present, is perhaps the most innovative thing the new Trudeau government can do.


Matthew Herder is an Associate Professor, Health Law Institute, Faculties of Medicine and Law, Dalhousie University. @cmrherder