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Margin Notes

What’s the value of university research?


There’ve been a number of interesting reports and news items about the merits of university research in the last week or so, including a rather startling piece suggesting the government shouldn’t be funding research at all (I’ll get to that one in a minute).

First, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada last week released its Momentum report, which details universities’ research activities and the benefits this brings to Canada, including “new products, services, processes, policies and new ways of understanding society.”

Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was at the unveiling, which coincided with AUCC’s annual meeting, and he assured university presidents that the government is “on the same page” in terms of its belief that university research confers a “knowledge advantage” to the country (see this article by the Globe and Mail, for a fee).

The Institute for Research on Public Policy also just released a new study, Connecting the Dots between University Research and Industrial Innovation, which examines the ways university-developed technologies are transferred to industry. The report notes that Canada invests large sums in academic research, “but the fruits of these investments are not reflected in more industrial innovation and improved productivity.”

Incidentally, at the annual meeting of the Canada Foundation for Innovation this morning in Ottawa, the CEO of MaRS Discovery District, Ilse Treumicht, gave a clear and insightful presentation on how Canada can make a “serious switch” to the knowledge economy by using Canadian research to build the next generation of companies. Her slide presentation is available on the CFI website.

And, for the number-crunchers, Statistics Canada has just published its annual Survey of intellectual property commercialization in the higher education sector, which contains data from 2005-06. In sum: Canada is still making progress, according to a number of indicators, but a bit more slowly than in the previous few years.

Finally, the National Post ran an opinion piece suggesting the government shouldn’t be funding research, basing the argument on the views of Terence Kealey, a biochemist and vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham and author of the 2008 book, Sex, Science and Profits. According to Professor Kealey, “the notion that science needs government subsidies in order to advance is not merely benignly mistaken, but downright harmful.”

According to the article, “business-produced R&D is what actually drives economic growth. Publicly financed R&D, on the other hand, correlates negatively with growth, because government-funded projects ‘crowd out’ privately funded endeavours.”

I’ve been involved in the university sector for nearly 10 years now, and this seems to contradict much of what I’ve heard from Canadian university leaders and researchers over these years.

Maybe that explains why AUCC President Claire Morris responded in a letter to the editor in today’s paper that “there is no historical evidence in this country to suggest that reducing public support for research would somehow lead to increased private sector R&D.”

If anyone else would like to offer a thoughtful critique, or defense, of Professor Kealey’s views, I’d be interested to hear it.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Alicia Castillo Holley / November 30, 2008 at 12:08

    I’ve been working on creating wealth from innovations from Unis for decades… and I lecture on the topic.

    I do agree that funding for research will come from the private sector IF it is not supported by governments. However, I doubt that the extent and timing of the funding will be appropriate.

    We need to remember that research and education go hand in hand. It is in the best interest of a country to have academics engaged on research… unless of course we want to be teaching outdated material. The real impact of research is on nurturing love for learning and discovery. How we measure that is another matter.

    It is true that cheap capital (grants) affect the way researchers value investments, and in most of the cases I’ve worked with, causes conflicts with businesses and venture capitalists. Furthermore, most research and academic institutions behave in a way that ‘transfers’ technology instead of creating wealth.

    I wonder if the challenge is to balance education, research, and payback, or to create a model that supports each one of these areas prioritizing what is more relevant. The result of some research is priceless, we can’t put a dollar figure onto that.

    Greetings from down under,
    Alicia Castillo Holley

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