Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: research

November 18

The Radical Implications of David Turpin’s Installation Speech

David Turpin was installed as President at the University of Alberta earlier this week.  His inaugural speech was good.  Very good.  Read a shortened version of it here.

(Full disclosure: I spoke at a leadership function at the University of Alberta in August, for which I received a fee.  The University has also recently purchased two of our syndicated research products.  Make of that what you wish.)

The speech starts out with what I would call some standard defences of the university, which any president would give: we seek truth and knowledge, we innovate, and we create jobs, yadda yadda.  Where it gets interesting is where he starts his appeal to the provincial government.  Let me quote what I think are the key bits:

“Our task continues to be to ask unexpected questions, seek truth and knowledge, and help society define, understand and frame its challenges. Our goal for the future is to find new and innovative ways to mobilize our excellence in research and teaching to help municipal, provincial, national and international communities address these challenges.”

Note: the truth/knowledge tasks “continue”, but now we’re adding a “goal” of mobilizing the university’s talents to address “challenges”.  And these are not just abstract challenges.  Turpin gets very, very specific here:

To our municipal partners: We will work with you to address your major goals on poverty reduction, homelessness, downtown revitalization, infrastructure renewal and transportation.

To our provincial partners: We will work with you to strengthen a post-secondary education system that serves the needs of all Alberta’s learners. We will provide our students the educational experience they need to seed, fuel and drive social, cultural and economic diversification. We will advance social justice, leading reconciliation with our First Nations and protection for minorities. We will conduct research to sustainably develop Alberta’s wealth of natural resources and improve Albertans’ health and wellness.

These are really specific promises.  If I’m a municipal or provincial official, what I hear from this is “Cool! U of A is going to be my think tank!  It’s going to put expertise at my disposal in areas like poverty reduction and economic diversification”.  That may or may not be Turpin’s intent, but it’s what they will hear.  And that’s well beyond the traditional role of a university in Canada, and in some ways beyond even some of the “state service” commitments that exist in US Land Grant institutions.  Sure, ever since von Humboldt, universities have been there to serve and strengthen the state, but I think the way Turpin is articulating this is genuinely new.

Now, no doubt the University has enormous resources to help achieve all of these things.  But those resources are mostly faculty members and grad students.  And while the university can ask them nicely to help folks at city hall/the legislature when they come calling, the question is: what’s in it for the profs and grad students to drop what they’re doing and go help the city/province (especially if they feel they have better things to do)?  Is the expectation that staff will do this out of a collective desire to contribute to their communities, or will incentives be put in place?

This goes deep to the heart of a university’s research mission.  At research universities like U of A, tenure and promotion is based mostly on publication records, and time is supposed to be spent 40-40-20 on teaching, research, and service.  But if your provost walks down the hall and says “hey, I just met with a couple of MLAs, and they’re hoping they can borrow your expertise for a couple of weeks”, do those expectations now change?  Will tenure/promotion committees actually take into account work done for government as equivalent to work done for an academic publication?

(For those of you not native to academe, it may seem amazing that research done for public policy, something that changes the way government makes decisions in a certain area, is not rated as highly for tenure/promotion as publishing things in journals that on average are read by a handful of people.  It is amazing, yes.  But true more often than not.)

If the answer to those questions is no, then I don’t think this initiative will go far.  But if the answer is yes, then Turpin is literally talking about a new kind of university, one that is prepared to sacrifice at least some of the prestige associated with being a “world-class university” with a laser-like focus on publication outputs, in order to contribute to its community in very concrete ways.  It’s not a reduction in research intensity, but it is a different type of research intensity.

The risk, of course, is that this new type of intensity won’t come with as many dollars attached.  I hope that’s not the case.  But in any event, this could be quite an exciting experiment.  One definitely worth keeping an eye on.

November 11

Times You Wish There Was a Word Other Than Research

There is something about research in modern languages (or English, as we used to call it) that sets many people’s teeth on edge, but usually for the wrong reasons.

Let’s go back a few months to Congress, specifically to an article Margaret Wente wrote where she teed-off on a paper called “Sexed-up Paratext: The Moral Function of Breasts in 1940s Canadian Pulp Science Fiction”.   Her point mostly was about “whatever happened to the great texts?”  Which, you know: who cares?  The canon is overrated, and the transversal skills that matter can be taught through many different types of materials.

But she hit a nerve by articulating a point about research in the humanities, and why the public feels uneasy about funding them.  Part of it is optics, and what looks to outsiders like childish delight in mildly titillating or “transgressive” titles.  But mostly, it just doesn’t “look like” what most people think of as research.  It’s not advancing our understanding of the universe, and it’s not making people healthier, so what’s it doing other than helping fuel career progression within academia?  And that’s not a judgement at all on what’s in the paper itself (I haven’t read the paper, I can’t imagine Wente did either); even if it were the best paper at Congress, people who defend the humanities wouldn’t likely point to a paper whose title contains the words “the Moral Functions of Breasts” as a way to showcase the value of humanities research.  The title just screams self-indulgence.

And yet – as a twitter colleague pointed out at the time – whoever wrote this piece probably is a great teacher.  With this kind of work, they can show the historical roots of things like sexuality in comics, which is highly relevant to modern issues like Gamergate.  If we want teachers to focus on material that is relevant and can engage students, and if you really want scholarly activity to inform teaching, surely this is exactly the kind of thing that should be encouraged.  As scholarly activity, this is in a completely different – and much, much better – category than, say, the colonoscopic post-modernist theorizing that was so memorably skewered during the Sokal Affair because you can clearly see the benefits for teaching and learning.

But is it “research”?

The academe doesn’t like to talk about this much because, you know, you stick to your discipline and I’ll stick to mine.   You can push the point if you want and claim that all research is similar because, regardless of discipline, research is an exercise in pattern recognition.  There are, however, some fundamental differences between what sciences call research and what humanities call research.   In the sciences, people work to uncover laws of nature; in the social sciences, people (on a good day) are working on laws (or at least patterns) of human behaviour and interaction.  In humanities, especially English/Modern Languages, what’s essentially going on is narrative-building.  That’s not to say that narratives are unimportant, nor that the construction of good narrative is easier than other forms of scholarly work.  But it is not “discovery” in the way that research is in other disciplines. 

And here’s the thing: when the public pays for research, it thinks it’s paying for discovery, not narrative-building.  In this sense, Wente taps into something genuine in the zeitgeist; namely, the public claim that: “we’re being duped into paying for something to which we didn’t agree”.  And as a result, all research comes under suspicion.  This is unfortunate: we’re judging two separate concepts of scholarly work by a single standard, and both end up being found suspect because one of them is mislabeled.

To be clear: I am not at all suggesting that one of these activities is superior to the other.  I am suggesting that they are different in nature and impact.  For one thing, the most advanced scientific research is mostly unintelligible to lower-year undergraduates, whereas some of the best narrative work is actually – much like Sexed-up Paratext – intended precisely to render some key academic concepts more accessible to a broader audience.

It is precisely for this reason that we really ought to have two separate words to describe the two sets of activities.  The problem is finding one that doesn’t create an implicit hierarchy between the two.  I think we might be stuck with the status quo.  But I wish we weren’t.

November 06

What Canadians Think About Universities, and Where Canadian Universities Want To Go

A couple of quick notes about two interesting things from Universities Canada this week.

The first is the release of some public opinion polling, which they commissioned in the spring, regarding universities and other forms of higher education.  You can see the whole thing here, but I want to highlight a couple of slides, in particular.

The first is this one:

















It seems Canadians are overwhelmingly positive about most post-secondary institutions (though Quebecers clearly have a few doubts about CEGEPs).  Somewhat perplexingly, UnivCan also felt the need to test Canadians’ opinions about universities in Europe (do Canadians really have deep feelings about French grands écoles, German fachhochschulen, and Romanian politehnici?).  Mostly, though, this is all to the good.

But the more interesting set of answers is this one:


















Turns out Canadians think their universities are world-class, practical, and produce valuable research… but they also really need to change.  Which seems about right to me.  However, one wishes there might have been a follow-up: what kind of change is needed, exactly?

Often times, these kind of dissonant results (you’re great/please change) give the poll-reader a lot of room to cherry-pick.  Is UnivCan doing this?  Well, maybe.  Take a look at the new “Commitments to Canadians” the Presidents collectively issued this week.  They commit themselves to:

  • Equip all students with the skills and knowledge they need to flourish in work and life, empowering them to contribute to Canada’s economic, social, and intellectual success.
  • Pursue excellence in all aspects of learning, discovery, and community engagement.
  • Deliver a broad range of enriched learning experiences.
  • Put our best minds to the most pressing problems – whether global, national, regional, or local.
  • Help build a stronger Canada through collaboration and partnerships with the private sector, communities, government, and other educational institutions in Canada and around the world.

OK, so some of this is yadda yadda, whatever kind-of-stuff. (“pursue excellence in everything we do” is utterly void of meaning). But an emphasis on partnerships is good, as is the commitment to preparing students for work & life – in that order.  Something stronger on internships and co-ops would have been better: both UC Chair Elizabeth Cannon and UC President Paul Davidson have spoken a lot about co-ops in recent speeches, but a specific commitment to them is lacking in the actual statement.  That’s too bad: co-ops and internships have the potential to be a genuine and unique value proposition for Canadian higher education; our universities do a lot more of it than those in other developed countries.  And pretty much everyone loves them, bar the sniffy types who disdain them as “mere training”.

The issue is follow-through, of course, and Lord knows shifting institutional cultures ain’t easy.  But one gets the sense that Canadian universities are absorbing the change message, and acting upon it.  That’s good news.

Have a good weekend.

November 02

Pure vs. Applied Science and an Easy Win for the Liberals

OK, y’all probably know that I’m not particularly a fan of the terms “pure” and “applied” science (outside of physics and cosmology, most science is applied, to some extent), with “pure” science being a post-World War II political construct. Long-time readers will also know that I am generally unimpressed with the whole “any move away from ‘pure’ science is a step towards barbarism” cant: major science powers can and do spend a heck of a lot of money on applied research (Fraunhofer institute, anyone?).  But that doesn’t mean something isn’t seriously out of whack in Canadian science.

For arguments’ sake, let’s say there are two buckets, one called “100% pure science” and one called “100% applied science”.  What’s the right amount of money for a government to put into each of them?  No one knows.  The answer presumably differs somewhat by country, and is based on the nature of other elements in the innovation ecosystem: business, venture capital, supply chains, etc.  But in Canada, at the granting council level at least, the “pure science” bucket is and always has been way, way, way larger than the applied bucket.

What’s gone wrong with Canadian Science is not that we’ve been taking money out of the pure bucket and putting it into the applied bucket – I know that’s more or less the media narrative on this, but it doesn’t actually describe what’s happened.  No, the issue is that little by little, the entire pure research bucket is getting dragged towards the applied bucket.  Every time the government demands a business co-funder, every time they ask for more “real-world applications” of a potential project, they pollute the pure science bucket.  The 100% applied bucket did get marginally bigger during the Harper years.  But of far more importance is that the 100% pure bucket gradually became an 80% pure bucket, and then a 70% pure bucket, etc., etc.

(I suppose we could argue percentages here, but that’s not really the point – you get the idea.)

To be fair, the start of this shift actually pre-dates the Tories; certainly some of this was underway by the time Chretien left office.   But virtually all reasonable observers now think this shift has gone too far.  Yes, doing “translational” research is important, but moving to the point where the translational aspect of research is the centre, and the basic research just an add-on – as CIHR recently did – is simply ass-backwards.

So here’s a simple thing the Liberals can do to win massive acclaim, without spending an extra dime: call the granting councils in, and tell them to unbundle their pure and applied research efforts.  You could probably even cut a little bit off the “pure” budget and throw it into the “applied” bucket – so long as the “pure” budget gets dragged from the 70% mark back towards the 100% mark.

(Again, we could argue percentages, but life’s too short.)

The point is, there isn’t a scientist in the country that thinks putting everything in a hybrid pure/applied system has worked.  It can be changed for the better, at no cost.  This should make it a no-brainer for the new government – provided the higher education community can get its act together to advocate loudly, consistently, and quickly.

May 08

The Economic Growth Imperative

A quick note: the OTTSYD will be on brief hiatus next week, as I’ll be in Japan and won’t have regular access to my computer.  Not to worry, though, we’ll pick back up on the 18th.

Anyways: I was asked recently what I thought was the most important challenge for post-secondary education in Canada at the moment.  Resisting (barely) the flip answer “money”, I eventually settled on the allied concept of “learning how to promote economic growth and prosperity”.

Now, I know this theme is anathema to many in universities, who prefer to think of institutions as places to promote the pursuit of truth, beauty, etc.  Without wishing to dispute the importance of these goals, the pursuit of economic growth is simply a matter of self-interest.  Universities and colleges are not getting more money from tuition any time soon, largely because the perception of costs has drifted a long way from the actual net costs.  And as we saw earlier this week, there’s no new money coming from government this year, or any time in the near future.  The culprits?  A mix of adverse demographic trends and persistent slow economic growth.

Universities and colleges can’t do much about demographic change – they could be slightly less zealous about condom distribution during O-week, I suppose, but the pay-off is pretty long-term – but they can probably do something about economic growth.   In theory, PSE institutions can help themselves by working-out how to catalyze prosperity.  The problem is that universities, in particular, may not actually want to make the necessary changes to make this happen.

Let’s start by agreeing that we don’t actually know what specific higher education policies would maximize prosperity.  There’s this assumption that whatever we do now must be improving things, so let’s just continue on with only incremental changes.  But we actually have no idea if we’re teaching the right mix of skills, or competencies, or degrees to maximize growth.  We don’t know whether institutions can do more for growth by focusing on a few highly-qualified personnel (mostly PhDs), or by providing better education to a mass of students unlikely to go past the Bachelor’s level.  We don’t know what amount or types of experiential learning might be optimal. And while obviously it would be better all around if we understood these things, one still has to ask the question: if we knew the answer, would our institutions actually change as a result?  Or would internal resistance to things like more co-op, or a greater focus on undergraduate education (or whatever) stop them from doing the “right” thing?

It’s a similar case with research.  Say we had a better idea about how different types of research impacted short-, medium- and long-term growth, and we could say with some precision that re-jigging the system to be more/less focused on basic research, or more less/focused on (say) Life Sciences would likely result in larger economic payouts.  We don’t have any such idea of course – you’d think someone would have cracked some of this by now, but they haven’t – but if they had, would anyone whose research specialty/style not among the “correct” categories voluntarily change their research programs to help promote economic prosperity?  My guess is they’d sooner spend a lot of time contesting the economic research.

So there’s a choice here for institutions: continue doing what they are doing and worry about declining resources, or change things up to focus more on economic dynamism, and reaping rewards of higher income?  This is a discussion worth having sooner rather than later.

February 12

Free Election Manifesto Advice

OK, federal political parties.  I have some election manifesto advice for you.  And given that you’ve all basically accepted Tory budget projections and promised not to raise taxes, it’s perfect.  Completely budget neutral.  Here it is:

Do Less.

Seriously.  After 15 years of increasingly slapdash, haphazard policy-making in research and student aid, a Do Less agenda is exactly what we need.

Go back to 1997: we had three granting councils in Canada.  Then we got the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.  Then the Canadian Foundation for Sustainable Development Technology.  Then Brain Canada, Genome Canada, Grand Challenges Canada, the Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement, The Canada First Research Excellence Fund – and that’s without mentioning the proliferation of single-issue funds created at SSHRC and NSERC.  On commercialization, we’ve got a College and Community Innovation Program, a College-University Idea to Innovation Program, a dozen or so Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research (CECRs) – plus, of course, the wholesale revamp of the National Research Council to turn it into a Canadian version of the Fraunhofer Institute.

It’s not that any of these initiatives are bad.  The problem is that by spreading out money thinly to lots of new agencies and programs, we’re losing something in terms of coherence.  Funding deadlines multiply, pools of available cash get smaller (even if overall budgets are more or less what they used to be), and – thanks to the government requirement that a large portion of new funding arrangements be leveraged somehow – the number of funders whose hands need to held (sorry, “whose accountability requirements need to be met”) is rising very fast.  It all leaves less time to, you know, do the actual science – which is what all this funding is supposed to be about, isn’t it?

Or take student assistance.  We know how much everyone (Liberals especially) loves new boutique student aid programs.  But that’s exactly the wrong way to go.  Everything we know about the $10 billion/year student aid business is that it’s far too complicated, and no one understands it.  That’s why people in Ontario scream about affordability and accessibility when in fact the province is nearly as generous as Quebec when it comes to first-year low-income university students.  For people to better appreciate what a bargain Canadian higher education is, we need to de-clutter the system and make it more transparent, not add more gewgaws.

So here’s the agenda: take a breather on new science and innovation programs; find out what we can do to make the system simpler for researchers; merge and eliminate programs as necessary (is Genome Canada really still worth keeping, or can we basically fold that back in to CIHR?) – while ensuring that total funds available do not diminish (a bump would be nice, too, but the simplification is more important).

As for student aid?  Do a deal with the provinces to simplify need assessment and make it easier for students to know their likely aid eligibility much further in advance.  Do a deal with provinces and institutions to convert tax credits into grants to institutions for a large one-time tuition reduction.  Do not, under any circumstances, do anything to make the system more complex.

I know it goes against the grain, guys.  I know you need “announceables” for the campaign.  But in the long run, it’s more important to do things well.  And to do that, we really need to start doing less.

February 09

Funding Universities’ Research Role

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a series of pieces looking at the economics of teaching loads; specifically, I was focussed on the relationship between per-student funding and the teaching loads required to make universities self-sustaining.  I had a number of people write to me saying, in effect, “what about research?”

Good question.

The quick answer is that in provinces with explicit enrolment-driven funding formula (e.g. Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia), governments are not in fact paying universities to do any research, and neither are students.  They are paying simply for teaching.  There is nothing in these funding formulae or the tuition agreements with students that says, “this portion of the money is for research”.

Now that doesn’t mean governments don’t want faculty to conduct research.  It could mean that government just wants any research to occur after a certain number of credits are completed.  But I’m not sure this is, in fact, the correct interpretation.  In Ontario, for instance, universities sign multi-year agreements with governments.  Not a word can be found in these agreements about research – they are entirely about enrolments and teaching.  Admittedly that’s just Ontario, but I don’t think it’s substantially different elsewhere. British Columbia’s institutional mandate letters, for instance, do not mention research, and while Alberta’s do, they really only suggest that the institution’s priorities align at least somewhat with that of the Alberta Research and Innovation Plan, a commitment so loose that any half-way competent government relations person could make it appear to be true without ever bothering any actual academics to alter their programs of research.

So I might go further and say it’s not that provincial governments want research to occur after a certain number of credits have been offered; rather, I would suggest that provincial governments do not actually care what institutions do with their operating grants, provided they teach a certain number of credits.  Certainly, to my knowledge, there is not a single provincial government in Canada that has ever endorsed the formula by which professors spend their time 40-40-20 teaching/research/service.  That’s an internal convention of universities, not a public policy objective.

There’s a case to be made that the research component of provincial funding needs to be made more transparent – a case, for instance, made by George Fallis in a recent book.  But universities will resist this; if research subsidies are made transparent, there will inevitably be a push to make institutions accountable for the research they produce.  That way lies assessment systems, such as the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (formerly known as the Research Assessment Exercise), or the Excellence in Research for Australia.  Both of these have driven differentiation among universities, in that institutions have tended to narrow research foci in response to external evaluations.  This, of course, is something universities hate: no one wants to have to tell the chemistry department (or wherever) that their research output is sufficiently weak that from now on they’re a teaching-only unit.

To put this another way: sometimes, ambiguity benefits universities.  Where research is concerned, it’s probably not in universities’ interest to make things too transparent.  Whether this opacity is actually in students’ and taxpayers’ interests is a different question.

January 30

The Case of Southwestern Ontario

Yesterday I talked about ways universities can generate economic growth, and I promised to offer an example from Southwestern Ontario.

Southwestern Ontario has been in the news a lot recently due to its deteriorating economy, not least through the efforts of Western professor Mike Moffatt.  More recently, the Globe’s Adam Radwanski penned a feature article on what southwestern Ontario can learn from such economic revivals as has happened in the US rust belt.

Radwanski’s argument is a long one, but the bit relevant to post-secondary education just cites the examples of Pittsburgh and Akron, and says that universities should work more closely with industry to create new hi-tech centres of production.  Right off the bat, I think we can discard the Pittsburgh example.  For one thing, the city is in fact continuing to hemorrhage manufacturing jobs (3,000 last year alone), and for a second, the two institutions that have done the most to power the local economy are Carnegie Mellon (private) and Pittsburgh (semi-private), with a combined endowment of $5.6 billion.  Last I checked, the combined total for Western and Windsor was around $700 million.

Endowments matter because they allow institutions to take risks.  It’s probably not a coincidence that if you look at major US tech and innovation hubs where universities have served as a catalyst (e.g. Silicon Valley, Route 150 in Boston), the institutions at the heart are all private, and hence not worried about legislative scrutiny.  The only exception to this rule – UT Austin – just happens to be the world’s second-best endowed public university ($6 billion in assets, behind Michigan at $8 billion).

Ah, you say – but what about Akron?  That’s a public university, and it had a big role in helping the local rubber industry transition into a centre of excellence for polymers.  And yes, Akron is actually an excellent example, because it has a very close Ontario counterpart; namely, the University of Waterloo.

These days, people associate Waterloo with co-op, engineering, and integration with the local hi-tech economy.  But it’s worth remembering that when Waterloo started out in the late 1950s, the hi-tech economy didn’t exist.  Back then, Waterloo’s main industry – like Akron’s – was tires, and for the first decade or so of its existence, Waterloo was all about working with the tire industry.

Could Waterloo have worked harder to “save” the local tire industry, as UAkron did in Ohio?  Possibly.  But one big thing Akron had going for it was the fact that Goodyear had its corporate headquarters there.  Companies tend to do R&D close to home.  Even if Waterloo had tried some of the stuff Akron did, there’s no guarantee it would have had the same results because at the end of the day, Waterloo was a branch plant economy.  That matters.

Instead, of course, Waterloo did something better: it invented a new local industry essentially from scratch.  This did not occur by “working with industry” as we traditionally think about it.  It happened by giving a lot of people advanced training in a particular area, letting them create and spin-out companies, and then wait for the local economy to develop the deep pool of managerial skills and venture capital sources required to take products from concept to market.

(The importance of this last bit is insufficiently appreciated.  Take UBC, one of the country’s leaders in technology transfer: its life sciences spin-offs had a miserable time in the 80s and 90s because back then the only thing the local VCs and entrepreneurs understood was how to cut down trees and dig stuff out of the ground.  There’s a domestic life-sciences business ecology in Vancouver now, but it took 20 years to develop the required knowledge and skills.)

So, could Western University play a role like U Akron or U Waterloo?  Yes.  But it would have to bet on an industry or two (and it’s not clear which ones would make most sense).  And for the moment it is unclear that they have the desire, the cash, or the political backing to do so.  And even if they did, results would likely take a decade or more to show.  It’s a fix, but not a quick one.

January 29

Universities and Economic Growth

If you read the OECD/World Bank playbook on higher education, it’s all very simple.  If you raise investments into higher education and research, growth will follow.

At the big-picture national level, this is probably true.  But it’s maddeningly inspecific.  What is the actual mechanism by which higher spending on a set of institutions translates into growth?  Is it the number of trained graduates produced?  Is it the quality or type of education they receive?  Does concentrating research in certain areas mean greater growth?  What about the balance between “pure” and “applied” research (insofar as those are useful distinctions)? What about technology transfer strategies?

Most importantly for a country like Canada: what about geography?  Is a strategy of widely distributing funds better than a strategy of concentration for spurring economic growth?  Should urban universities – nearer the centres of economic production – get more than universities in smaller conurbations?

Anyone telling you they have the definitive answer to these questions is lying.  Fact is, the literature on most of these topics is embarrassingly thin and provides little to no guidance to governments.  And the literature as it pertains to individual universities is even thinner.  Say you want an institution to “do better” at helping deliver regional economic growth: what do you ask it to do, exactly?  Here, the literature mainly consists of anecdotes of success parading as universally-applicable rules for university conduct (this European Union document is an example).  Which of course is tosh.

One solution you often see to the problem of decreased regional economic growth in smaller cities is for PSE institutions to “work more with industry”.  But if your local industry is in decline, there are limits to this strategy.  You can educate more people in a given field in order to lower the price of skilled labour.  You can get profs to work on upstream blue-sky research that will revolutionize the field, but the spillovers are enormous and the likelihood they will be captured by local business is small.  You can get your profs to work on downstream innovation with local business, but that’s not foolproof. Many companies won’t have the receptor capacity to work with you, either because they are too small or because they are too big and rely on a centralized R&D system, which more often than not is located outside the country (usually the US).

From a PSE point-of-view there’s two ways you can go from here.  There’s the route of “give us more money and we’ll give the local workforce a broader set of skills”.  But the fact that a local population has high levels of relatively generic skills does not necessarily make a region a particularly attractive place for investment.  I’m not an economic geographer, but it seems to me that one of the driving forces of the modern era is that the most profitable companies and industries are those that effectively capitalize on agglomerations of very specific types of talent.  And by and large, to get agglomerations of very specific types of talent you tend to need a large population to begin with, which is why big cities keep getting bigger.

The other option is a “place your bets” approach.  For emerging industries to find the right kinds of skills in a particular region, you have to place bets.  You have to say: “we’re going to invest in training and facilities to produce workers for X, Y, and Z industries, which at the moment do not exist in our region, and indeed may never do so.  Cape Breton University’s emphasis on renewable energy is a good example of this strategy.  It’s a bet: if they get good at this and produce enough graduates, maybe within a few years there will be enough of a talent agglomeration that business will go there and invest.

Maybe.  And maybe not.  Problem is, public universities and their government paymasters get nervous about “maybes”.  Higher education is a risk-averse industry.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at a case study in this: Southwestern Ontario.

January 06

Adult Discussions About Research Policy

Over the winter break, the Toronto Star published an editorial on research funding that deserves to be taken out to the woodshed and clobbered.

The editorial comes in two parts. The first is a reflection on whether or not the Harper government is a “caveman” or just “incompetent” when it comes to science. I suppose it’s progress that the Star gives two options, but frankly the Harper record on science isn’t hard to decode:

  1. The Conservatives like “Big Science” and have funded it reasonably well.
  2. They’re not crazy about pure inquiry-driven stuff the granting councils have traditionally done and have kept growth under inflation as a result (which isn’t great but is better than what has happened to some other areas of government funding).
  3. They really hate government regulatory science especially when it comes to the environment and have approached it the way the Visigoths approached Rome (axes out, with an intention to cause damage).
  4. By and large they’d prefer if scientists and business would work more closely together; after all, what’s state investment in research and development for if not to increase economic growth?

But that’s not the part of the article that needs a smack upside the head. Rather, it’s these statements:

Again and again, the Conservatives have diverted resources from basic research – science for no immediate purpose other than knowledge-gathering – to private-public partnerships aimed at immediate commercial gain.


…by abandoning basic research – science that no business would pay for – the government is scorching the very earth from which innovation grows.

OK, first of all: the idea that there is a sharp dividing line between “basic” and “applied” research is pure hornswoggle. They aren’t polar opposites; lots of research (including pretty much everything in medicine and engineering) is arguably both. Outside of astronomy/cosmology, very little modern science is for no purpose other than knowledge gathering. There is almost always some thought of use or purpose. Go read Pasteur’s Quadrant.

Second, while the government is certainly making much of its new money conditional on business participation, the government hasn’t “abandoned” basic research. The billions going into the granting councils are still there.

Third, the idea that innovation and economic growth are driven solely or even mainly by domestic basic research expenditures  is simply a fantasy. A number of economists have shown a connection between economic growth and national levels of research and development; no one (so far as I know) has ever proven it about basic research alone.

There’s a good reason for that: while basic research is the wellspring of innovation (and it’s important that someone does basic research), in open economies it’s not in the least clear that every country has to engage in it to the same degree. The Asian tigers, for instance, emphasized “development” for decades before they started putting money into what we would consider serious basic research facilities. And nearly all the technology Canadian industry relies on is American, and would be so even if we tripled our research budgets.

We know almost nothing about the “optimal” mix of R&D, but it stands to reason that the mix is going to be different in different industries based on how close to the technological frontier each industry is in a given country. The idea that there is a single optimal mix across all times and places is simply untenable.

Cartoonishly simple arguments like the Star’s, which imply that any shift away from “basic” research is inherently wrong, aren’t just a waste of time; the “basic = good, applied = bad” line of argument actively infantilizes the Canadian policy debate. It’s long past time this policy discussion grew up.

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