Bioethics Blogs

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

Herein lies innovation’s magic, but also its trick—a trick that governments and other actors have long traded on.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.