In Alberta, ATB Financial is a household name and so is Todd Hirsch, its chief economist. What makes ATB Financial well known in the province is the wide range of services provided through almost 200 branches and more than 100 agencies, telephone and Internet banking and automated banking machines. With more than $37 billion in assets, ATB is the largest Alberta-based financial institution.

The 49-year-old Hirsch is a prolific financial commentator, producing a daily economic update sent to thousands of subscribers world-wide, a regular column for The Globe and Mail and opinion articles for other Canadian media. He holds a BA Honours in economics from the University of Alberta and an MA in economics from the University of Calgary, where he taught for almost a decade. For more than 20 years Hirsch worked as an economist at Canadian Pacific Railway, the Canada West Foundation and the Bank of Canada before joining ATB Financial in 2007.

Hirsch serves on the executive board of the Alberta Economic Development Authority, the University of Calgary Board of Governors and is the chair of the Premier’s Council on Culture. In 2012 he and co-author Robert Roach published The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline. The Canadian Chemical News asked Hirsch for an economist’s perspective on the state of science in Canada.

Do you think of Canada as being in the first rank of countries that value scientific research?

No, I do not. There have been some serious breaches in how the current federal government uses the contributions of science that are a little bit worrying to me. Muzzling is a word used by scientists but maybe I’d say under-appreciating or undervaluing the contributions that scientific research has made to this country. 

What would we have to do better to get into the top echelons?

I think the scientific and academic world could perhaps do a little better sales pitch, or better promotion of why innovation in Canada depends on scientific excellence. Scientists themselves understand why their scientific endeavours are important. But in the past they’ve never really had to be accountable; they’ve never really had to validate their work Artists have been at this for some time. They’ve had to justify why they should receive public sector – or even private sector – support. Artists have had to promote themselves as economic drivers of the economy. And the scientific community – I don’t think they’ve been called upon to really make their case.

Have you ever heard that Canada has a national science and technology strategy, sometimes called an innovation strategy?

Boy, if I have heard about it, I couldn’t give you any details. It sounds like something that probably should exist but I don’t know anything about it. 

Why should countries have strategies for research and strategies for innovation and strategies for science and technology? Probably all the same strategy rolled into one.

Again, I’m approaching this from an economist’s point of view. When you look at where in the future new value is going to be added from our industries and new jobs are going to be created and Canada remaining competitive in a global economy, I think a lot of it depends on how strong we are in science and innovation. 

Alberta had a provincial election recently. Was there any mention of the role that science and technology plays in the province’s economy during the campaigning?

There was virtually none. There was essentially no focus on science or innovation for Alberta. There was lots of talk about economic diversity for the province but very, very little, if any, talk about how science fits into that. 

Would you say that outside of elections, in ordinary times, the public still has minimal interest in questions of science and technology, of innovation and the economic growth that might come from research?

Yeah, I think in general the public just tunes out when they hear “science,” when they hear “R&D.” I don’t even know if most people could tell you what R&D stands for, although politicians and economists throw that expression around pretty easily. I don’t think there’s an appreciation [among the public] for why we need research and development, why we need scientific innovation.

So why do we need scientific innovation?

Because we’re only as good as our last idea. My book The Boiling Frog Dilemma talks a lot about the importance of innovation, it talks a lot about the importance of where creative ideas come from. Without a robust scientific community we’re going to fall behind the rest of the world in terms of great breakthrough ideas. 

What generates economic wealth is ideas. Without those ideas to drive the next innovation, or the next improvement in a product, we’re going to increasingly become just another also-ran internationally. It’s not molecules of hydrocarbons in the ground that create wealth and it’s not an auto assembly factory that creates wealth. What creates wealth is a good idea. You need a good idea to drive how we extract this oil from the earth and how we do it in a way that’s viewed increasingly critically by the rest of the world. Or what are going to be the products of the 21st century that haven’t even been invented. 

So the key to Canada’s future economic prosperity is innovation?

A There is a difference between invention, innovation and design improvement. They all have to do with scientific pursuits. From an economics point of view they all have a role but they’re very distinct steps. We tend to overemphasize or overvalue innovation but I think we tend to underestimate the economic impact of design improvement.

Every government white paper I read or every mission statement from companies all wriggle that word “innovation” in. I don’t think they realize what innovation really is. I think what they should be focusing on is taking an existing system and improving the design of it to add value. That’s what Apple has done. Apple hasn’t invented anything but no one would say that Apple is a company that hasn’t added economic value. What Apple has done is revolutionized the design of awkward information technology items like the iPod.  

This interview has been condensed and edited.