Carbon management, politics, innovation & Canadian universities

Recent media and political mumblings in Alberta raised the notion that commitments to investments in carbon capture and storage (CCS) demonstration projects might be diverted into other emission reduction technologies. Although the Alberta government quickly indicated that was not the case, the need to keep eggs in more than one technological basket is self-evident.

No single solution

Currently there is no single panacea technology that can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by the gigatons per year needed to reverse our impact on the environment. Thus, a package of efficiency improvements in energy generation and use, new and renewable energy technology developments, and CCS combined with more efficient fossil fuel use are among the parallel approaches being considered to deal with the mounting CO2 emissions of the world’s developing societies. CCS is merely a relatively straightforward, transition technology that might buy us a little time as we develop new energy systems, but its testing and success depend only partly on technology. Societal acceptance of the technology remains uncertain. This is why Carbon Management Canada not only supports research into design and monitoring of secure carbon storage systems but also carries out research into public understanding and acceptance of technologies, and into societal engagement in the technology deployment process.

Call for Proposals

In our recent call for proposals, while we encourage research in the CCS area, we also seek a portfolio of wide ranging technology types that can quickly reduce our emissions from fossil fuel use. We are especially interested projects that will reduce emissions from big emitters through the development of large scale uses of CO2. For example, we already have several projects working on the development of carbon neutral fuels. Other promising approaches include biological or photochemical routes that reduce CO2 to hydrocarbon fuels, which are then available for combustion, generating CO2 which can be used in the cycle again. Once considered infeasible, such approaches are starting to show some promise. CMC as part of its research portfolio is active in all key elements of such potential solutions. Check the Carbon Commons for call details.

Transformation requires innovation

While many hope fossil fuels will disappear overnight, societal, political, and economic factors indicate this will not happen quickly, so solutions to the realities of rapid transition to a sustainable low carbon emission energy supply must include providing low carbon emission fossil fuel energy. This transition is complex because it is not merely technological, but requires political and social changes too. The CMC research program is one small initiative to help our resource economy provide an adequate supply of energy, energy technologies, and enabling policy advice that makes energy available to the growing population of Earth, while eliminating the negative impacts of energy, resource production and consumption on the world’s environment. This requires innovation in technology, institutional and business processes, and social understanding and acceptance of technology.

We must also question processes in our daily lives and our own institutions and ask whether business as usual in Canadian universities is appropriate for the level and quantity of invention, innovation and technology delivery needed. Increasingly it appears it is not!

Winners hard to predict

The irony and the challenge of frontline applicable research is that research and technology history tells us it is impossible to predict technical winners from basic research advances. Rigid, metric-driven algorithmic approaches to research program design simply don’t work unless you are looking for near-market incremental advances. But our challenge needs game-changing developments. To have a successful research program you need redundancy and the key is large volumes of plausible good ideas and initiatives. Linus Pauling is oft quoted as saying: “To have a good idea you need lots of good ideas.” But choosing which ideas will result in big technological outputs is not easy. A high volume approach is necessary but expensive. While CMC has many innovative projects underway, we still need more basic and applicable research that will lead to that wild idea that will lead (in CMC and with industry) to more study, invention, innovation and deployment at a large scale of truly game-changing technologies. The  warp drive of carbon emission reduction!

Universities a source of staff, not innovation

Who will come up with those ideas?

The average age of the staff on the Apollo program was 27. Postdocs and grad students were common. I don’t know the average age of the scientists, engineers and technicians on the Manhattan project but reading a few biographies suggests it’s about the same. Our innovators will be the graduate students and postdoctoral scientists and engineers at the core of our research programs. It is this group we must enable.

We must also see if our current university systems help or hinder the innovation process at Canadian universities. Canadian universities do well at basic research, assessed by output metrics such total peer reviewed publication citations, citation per researcher and so on. We are in the top 10 worldwide on that basis. We also spend more government dollars on university research (per capita) than most other comparable countries but our universities produce far fewer technologies, patents, spinoffs than other comparable countries and industry does not see us as a source of technology. Rather we are seen as a source of staff. Why can we not be both?

We do an excellent job of training staff for industry and that role has produced a unique profile for our trainee spectrum. In the Canadian university profile, we see larger proportional numbers of undergraduates and masters students and relatively low numbers of PhDs and than universities in other western democracies. This may well bias the types of projects we undertake and an emphasis on enabling (teaching and training) may have distracted us from doing (researching, inventing and innovating). It may also have contributed to an overly-structured, risk-averse academic culture.

Additionally, a predominant government research funding model directed to broad coverage and student training as a major focus (the discovery grant model) is innovative, unique in the western world, and has many interesting positive aspects. However it may have inadvertently promoted, along with other cultural features of our universities, a focus on smaller scale, individual activities at a time when we need large-scale team research programs. We are configured to train students, not to deliver invention and innovation.

Reader feedback encouraged

Some innovation occurs anyway and this suggests our system is not completely broken. But I suggest we will struggle to improve things significantly unless we make major changes to structure, culture and habits. Such views may be slightly controversial but we clearly have a challenge. I welcome your views as to how best to balance an ambitious free-format basic research program and applicable research resulting in a pipeline of inventions flowing into an innovation system that straddles universities and industry.

CMC is as much about our innovation process as it is about Carbon Management and we need innovation in how we innovate! I’d love to hear what you think and I especially want to hear from our younger researchers (aka students and postdocs) because they will invent the technologies we need.