Political science prof wins Donald Smiley Prize

Bruce Smardon
Bruce Smardon
Bruce Smardon
Bruce Smardon

Political science Professor Bruce Smardon has won the 2015 Donald Smiley Prize for his book Asleep at the Switch: The Political Economy of Federal Research and Development Policy since 1960. The prize is awarded by the Canadian Political Science Association for the best 2014 book in English or French in the area of Canadian government and politics.

Asleep at the Switch delves into why research, development and innovation in Canada is comparatively low among economies in the Global North, and how federal policy has helped keep it this way.

“Advanced capitalist economies traditionally have spent higher proportions of their gross domestic product on research and development,” says Smardon. “I trace why research and development (R&D) in Canadian industry has not increased significantly, despite all the government programs that have been designed to increase the importance of R&D in comparison with other economies.”

Smardon weaves a narrative of business practices and policies throughout recent history that do not support Canadian innovation in industry. He discusses why Canada’s manufacturing industry is declining and, in the process, argues that the Canadian manufacturing industry has borrowed technologically from the U.S., first for its benefit but ultimately to its detriment.

Asleep at the Switch: The Political Economy of Federal Research and Development Policy since 1960
Asleep at the Switch: The Political Economy of Federal Research and Development Policy since 1960

“All the advanced economies have experienced a shift of manufacturing away from their economies. I argue that in Canada, it has been compounded by the absence of innovation-based manufacturing,” he says.

In the early 20th century, tariff laws protected manufacturing within Canada, says Smardon, which prompted American branch plants to move north of the border to reap the rewards. He notes that, in a way not recognized in established views of Canadian development, these branch plants combined with Canadian controlled firms to establish mass-based manufacturing and consumption (known as Fordism) earlier than in other advanced economies outside the U.S.

This helped build the Canadian economy, he adds, but after the Second World War, when Canada wanted to expand its branch plant production focus from beyond the domestic market to the international market, the American branch plants did not want to change their business model.

“In the book, I trace why there were various moments when the Canadian government was trying to promote R&D innovation, but those industrial strategies never went anywhere. Basically, American branch plants didn’t want to change their operation. They wanted to continue in the way they always had,” he says. “And Canadian-controlled capital that wasn’t branch-plant based, but was more based in real estate, banking and resource-based sectors, they didn’t do a lot of innovation either. So the crux of the book is that despite all of these federal initiatives, you had a set of business interests that was not interested in shifting its orientation.”

Smardon argues that Canadian federal policy continues to favour foreign investment and, therefore, it will increasingly prioritize those business interests.

“The problem is that business interests in Canada, as they have been historically constructed, are not interested in a broad way in developing original innovation. As the Canadian federal state becomes more oriented towards serving the needs of business interests in Canada, it is also therefore not going to prioritize original innovation in the economy,” he says.

He also notes the deterioration of manufacturing further reinforces the reliance on resource-based exports – in particular, the oil sands and the difficulty of getting pipelines constructed and the volatility of relying on one type of export.

Smardon wrote Asleep at the Switch for readers interested in the Canadian political economy and how its development has changed over time. His book was named number two on The Hill Times’ list of the best 100 books in 2014.

The Donald Smiley Prize is awarded by the Canadian Political Science Association to honour the life and work of the great political scientist Donald V. Smiley. Smiley was a professor emeritus at York University and a former president of the association.