Monday, April 01, 2013

Enterprise And Advanced Education

The Alberta government’s ministry responsible for postsecondary education is ‘Enterprise and Advanced Education’.  Over the past few years, there has been a tremendous push to align the two concepts of ‘enterprise’ and ‘advanced education’, both provincially and federally, and both from outside postsecondary institutions and from within.  In principle, such alignment is possibly a very good idea.  In practice, however, it raises some serious concerns.  For a university researcher like me, it produces a conflict between one maxim for applied research (“silence is golden”) and another for public research (“publish or perish”).  Let me elaborate. 

The provincial government is signalling postsecondary institutions to align their research and teaching outcomes with the provincial economy.  For instance, in its 2012 Alberta Research & Innovation Plan, the ministry of Enterprise and Advanced Education notes “The alignment of Alberta Innovates corporations and Campus Alberta brings together learning, research and application, management and technical skills training, and new knowledge and commercialization, into a system that will create a culture of inquiry and entrepreneurialism. A culture that fosters the acquisition of commercial skills, financial abilities and business acumen will enable Alberta to move from a solid economy to a resilient, diversified knowledge-driven economy for future generations” (p. 6).  It is possible that other messages lay not far below quotes like this one.  There is concern that universities are under pressure to favor applied research over pure research, or to favor programs that emphasize particular career paths over others.  One case in point is a recent column in the National Post by Matt Gurney that argues that governments should only provide financial aid for students taking useful programs.

The push to align enterprise with advanced education has sharpened with recent budget cuts to postsecondary institutions and accompanying “Letters of Expectation” from the ministry.  For example, the draft letter of expectation for the University of Alberta asks that it allocate its resources “in ways that best achieve the following desired outcomes:
  • Albertans are engaged in lifelong learning;
  • Alberta’s workforce is skilled and productive;
  • Alberta demonstrates excellence in research, innovation, and commercialization; and,
  • Alberta’s economy is competitive and sustainable.”
A recent Globe & Mail column by University of Alberta Emerson Csorba argues eloquently that the last three of these outcomes appear to be strongly related to short-term economic goals.

Nonetheless, at a very general level all four of these outcomes do not appear to conflict with the university’s role of discovering new information, and disseminating its discoveries (and the methodologies used to make them) to the public and to its students.  In her “State of the University” address on February 28, 2013, Dr. Indira Samarasekera, President of the University of Alberta, pointed out that “our goal is, in fact, to do more than prepare students for particular jobs. Our goal is to give our students the knowledge and skills they need to think for themselves, to be creative and entrepreneurial, to seek solutions that others have missed … to undertake today’s work in a way that addresses tomorrow’s challenges. They must develop the very knowledge and skills that can help them diversify and be resilient—to bring all that they have to bear on whatever task they take up.”  I think that when I try to integrate my research with my teaching I am playing a part in achieving this goal.

Of course, this is not the only approach undertaken by the University of Alberta that harmonizes with the government’s desired outcomes.  In 2006, the University of Alberta and the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation launched a joint, not-for-profit, venture called TEC Edmonton.  Its general goal is to transition “science solutions into business opportunities”; TEC stands for “Technology, Entrepreneur & Commercialization”.  It is the exclusive technology transfer agent for the University of Alberta, and provides aid for U. of A. researchers and students to explore the possibility of commercializing their research.  According to TEC Edmonton’s annual report, in 2011-12 they advised 529 entrepreneurs and researchers, 70 of their clients combined to generate $73.4 million in revenue, and 28% of their clients were University of Alberta spinoffs.  Clearly, a significant amount of research commercialization goes on at the University of Alberta.

However, a university researcher faces a serious conflict because the goals of discovering and disseminating knowledge to our colleagues, our students, and the public does not align very well with the goal of transitioning science into business.

The cliché “publish or perish” governs knowledge discovery and dissemination.  An academic career faces constant evaluation, and a large part of this evaluation concerns research productivity.  To receive annual merit pay, to achieve tenure or promotion, to obtain grant funds to support future research, university researchers must publish their results.  A competitive CV requires both quantity and quality.  That is, to succeed in this business you have to publish many papers, and they have to appear in respected outlets.  I constantly remind graduate students that they are only as good as their next publication.  I do this because ‘publish or perish’ is the critical lesson to pass on to apprentice academics.

Long ago, though, I found that “publish or perish” is very bad when it comes to commercializing research.  A lot of my own research involves artificial neural networks, and these networks offer many possibilities for solving various applied classification problems.  Because of this, one of my more entrepreneurially minded colleagues set up a meeting between the two of us and a representative with the Industry Liaison Office, which was an ancestor of TEC Edmonton.  To my surprise, the ILO representative was more than a little concerned about me publishing my research in the public domain.  Indeed, I left with the strong impression that the ILO view of my job (or perhaps more correctly, the view of how my job should be conducted if I aimed to commercialize my discoveries) was completely opposite to my own view (expressed in the previous paragraph).

The reason for this was straightforward: patent law.  In Canada, a researcher has only a year to patent an invention or discovery after its public disclosure.  If more than a year passes, it is not patentable.  This means that if a researcher like me wants to commercialize research, “silence is golden”.  Published research is in the public domain, so if I publish my work – as is expected by my employers, not to mention my government granting agencies – this places severe time constraints on research commercialization.  The ILO’s solution seemed to require me to be silent about my research, and as a result I never pursued its commercialization.
In short, my view is that the combination of enterprise and advanced education leads to some perplexing problems for university researchers.  When I accept my salary, or when I accept government grants – public money – to conduct research, I believe that “publish or perish” is an acceptable position to be in, both in terms of lab research and course instruction.  “Silence is golden” strikes me as being contrary to the goals of a public institution.  It will be interesting to see how the combination of enterprise and advanced education proceeds in Alberta in the coming months.

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