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From Curiosity to Wealth Creation: How University Research can Boost Economic Growth


  • Peter Howitt

    (Brown University)


Technological and scientific research are crucial to long-term economic growth. Canadians are three times as rich today as 50 years ago thanks to new products and processes. The source of technological innovation is research and development (R&D), most of which takes place in the private sector of the economy. University research, however, is the source of the basic building blocks of many of the core sectors of the economy, in everything from information technology to pharmaceuticals to much more. It is crucial for economic growth that the innovations that occur at Canadian universities get commercialized and find their way into the rest of economy. Canadian universities lag behind their US counterparts in generating technology transfer between academic research and companies. With innovation and productivity at the forefront of the Canadian public policy agenda, it is crucial that governments create the right incentives for university researchers to pursue research that can eventually be commercialized. Rather than governments directing researchers to pursue business-related research, the overarching priority for Canada should be to attract the best researchers in the world. Though it may seem paradoxical, the evidence supports the view that the greatest benefit to society will come from scientists for whom practical utility and individual financial reward are minor considerations. The best way to attract such scientists to Canada is to redirect our research support towards the problems that are most challenging from a scientific point of view, not towards those that bureaucrats view as most likely to lead to commercial success. Although the federal and provincial governments are taking steps to encourage the commercialization of research, they should go further by: • requiring that all federally funded research papers appear in open access online repositories; • developing a template available to all university researchers that outlines the terms of commercialization – such as intellectual property rights or revenues – between universities, researchers and their business partners; and • building on recent reforms to the National Research Council that make it more business-oriented, but with the eventual goal of making it a pan-Canadian technology transfer institution, leaving federal funding for research to granting organizations. Since business R&D has been falling as a share of the Canadian economy, and is a critical input to the commercialization of university research, it is also important that Canadian governments take measures to encourage Canadian businesses to invest in the commercialization process.

Suggested Citation

  • Peter Howitt, 2013. "From Curiosity to Wealth Creation: How University Research can Boost Economic Growth," C.D. Howe Institute Commentary, C.D. Howe Institute, issue 383, June.
  • Handle: RePEc:cdh:commen:383

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Lam, Alice, 2011. "What motivates academic scientists to engage in research commercialization: ‘Gold’, ‘ribbon’ or ‘puzzle’?," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 40(10), pages 1354-1368.
    2. Iain Cockburn & Rebecca Henderson & Scott Stern, 1999. "The Diffusion of Science-Driven Drug Discovery: Organizational Change in Pharmaceutical Research," NBER Working Papers 7359, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Munawar Iqbal & David T. Llewellyn, 2002. "Introduction," Chapters,in: Islamic Banking and Finance, chapter 1 Edward Elgar Publishing.
    4. Perkmann, Markus & King, Zella & Pavelin, Stephen, 2011. "Engaging excellence? Effects of faculty quality on university engagement with industry," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 40(4), pages 539-552, May.
    5. Ajay Agrawal & Rebecca Henderson, 2002. "Putting Patents in Context: Exploring Knowledge Transfer from MIT," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 48(1), pages 44-60, January.
    6. Geuna, Aldo & Nesta, Lionel J.J., 2006. "University patenting and its effects on academic research: The emerging European evidence," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 35(6), pages 790-807, July.
    7. Robert E. Litan & Lesa Mitchell & E. J. Reedy, 2008. "Commercializing University Innovations: Alternative Approaches," NBER Chapters,in: Innovation Policy and the Economy, Volume 8, pages 31-57 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    8. S. Illeris & G. Akehurst, 2002. "Introduction," The Service Industries Journal, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 22(1), pages 1-3, January.
    9. Naomi Hausman, 2012. "University Innovation, Local Economic Growth, and Entrepreneurship," Working Papers 12-10, Center for Economic Studies, U.S. Census Bureau.
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    Cited by:

    1. Cozzi, Guido & Galli, Silvia, 2017. "Should the government protect its basic research?," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 157(C), pages 122-124.

    More about this item


    Economic Growth and Innovation; education; university research;

    JEL classification:

    • O34 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Innovation; Research and Development; Technological Change; Intellectual Property Rights - - - Intellectual Property and Intellectual Capital
    • I23 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - Higher Education; Research Institutions


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