UNIVERSITIES

RESEARCH IN CRISIS

The steady erosion of Canada’s research capacity has enormous implications for the future

CHRIS WOOD November 25 1996
UNIVERSITIES

RESEARCH IN CRISIS

The steady erosion of Canada’s research capacity has enormous implications for the future

CHRIS WOOD November 25 1996

RESEARCH IN CRISIS

UNIVERSITIES

The steady erosion of Canada’s research capacity has enormous implications for the future

CHRIS WOOD

To the casual traveller, there might seem to be little in common between the fogbound shores of Nova Scotia and the sunbaked deserts of Kuwait. But to Lydia Makrides, of Halifax, the two share a great deal. In both places, high-fat diets, heavy smoking and sedentary lifestyles contribute to elevated rates of heart disease, stroke and heart attacks.

Makrides is the director of Dalhousie University’s Cardiac Prevention and Rehabilitation Research Centre. And she is as persuasive as she is perceptive. In 1992, she successfully talked drugmaker Hoechst Marion Roussel into funding her research. That work involves training health professionals to encourage people to alter their lifestyles—and perhaps save their lives, without ever needing Hoechst’s drugs. Then, the persistent Cyprus-born physiotherapist spent 15 months, and funds from Hoechst, flying back and forth to the Persian Gulf. Her efforts were rewarded this past June, when Kuwait signed a $30million, 43-month agreement with the centre to bring its expertise in cardiac care to the Persian Gulf sheikdom. The contract will mean 200 jobs for Nova Scotians and new research opportunities for Dalhousie scientists. Says Makrides: “We are a success story in marketing.” Increasingly, salesmanship is becoming as critical as scholarship to Canadian researchers hoping to push back the frontiers of knowledge. By the mid-’90s, the nation’s spending on research and development had reached abysmally low levels: 1.4 per cent of gross domestic product, compared with an average of 2.2 per cent among Canada’s major industrial trading partners. Since then, things have gone from bad to worse. In the past two years, the federal government has cut funding by up to 14 per cent to the councils that sustain most university research in medicine, the sciences and the arts. And federal cuts to postsecondary education, health and social services will total a stunning 20 per cent—$7 billion—

Alberta’s Piper in a over the next two years. Across the coundeteriorating nuclear try, administrators point to aging buildmedicine lab: fallout ings, inadequate libraries, outdated from the underfunding equipment and the loss of top-notch faculty to friendlier research climates.

What is at stake is not only the quality of education, but the future wealth of the nation. The steady erosion of research capacity is coinciding with an inexorable global shift favoring those who can create—and renew—sophisticated, cutting-edge technologies. “We live in a knowledge-based economy,” says University of Western Ontario president Paul Davenport. In the 21st century, predicts Davenport, “the creation of knowledge will determine how many people are employed, and what our level of prosperity will be.” A study by Toronto’s Canadian Institute for Advanced Research underscored that contention earlier this

year. It estimated that investing two per cent of gross domestic product in research would raise economic output over the long term by as much as 17 per cent.

Armed with such numbers, organizations representing Canadian colleges, universities and their faculty unleashed a lobbying blitz on Ottawa in October. Their aim: to convince the federal government to undertake an ambitious investment drive to refurbish and reequip university research facilities. The amount of money they claim will be needed to bring what they call Canada’s “knowledge factories” up to speed: a staggering $1.2 billion. Still, they argue that the alternative will be far costlier. Says Robert Prichard, president of the University of Toronto: “It is an enormous risk to the longterm economic strength of Canada to allow our research infrastructure to be crumbling as we speak.”

In fact, many universiare not waiting for governments to act. Seeing themselves as incubators for national innovation, they have already responded by finding creative new ways of raising money to fill the breach. Makrides’ contract with Kuwait is one of a burgeoning network of research alliances between universities and outside organizations. For some, a determination to put the issue at the top of the agenda has actually led to record levels of research activity. When Premier Ralph Klein began making deep cuts to education budgets beginning in 1992, the University of Alberta identified 15 areas of research excellence and began promoting the importance of that research to the community. “Innovation,” says Martha Piper, U

of A vice-president of research, “happens in a research-intensive university working with its local community.” Thanks in large part to dozens of “strategic partnerships” with nearby institutions and businesses, Piper notes that at her university “our scientists are busier than ever.”

They are busy at the University of British Columbia as well. In a laboratory tucked under the eaves of the rainforest, an object resembling a soccer ball with articulated legs sticking out of its body at odd angles “walks” up an incline and falls over backward. But thanks to its curious unnatural symmetry it manages to remain upright on three of its four feet. Dubbed the “Platonic Beast,” in reference to the Greek philosopher and scientist, the device is in fact a breakthrough in the fast-evolving world of robotics and artificial intelligence. It is the only robot in the world designed to pick itself up after a tumble and keep on going— making it an ideal machine for investigating hazardous environments such as nuclear facilities.

The glamor fields that many people think of first are those like robotics, bioengineering, telecommunications and computer software development. In fact, not all the new knowledge need be as futuristic as UBC’s Platonic Beast. At the University of Saskatchewan, researchers boast that even so apparently humble an advance as a new strain of barley annually repays the investment in the research that developed it 30 times over.

But if that is the promise, the more imminent danger is of opportunities missed. From coast to coast, researchers say that Canada’s ability to generate the needed new discoveries—now and in the future—is at risk. The latest round of fund-

Dalhousie’s Makrides: ing cuts, they note, caps two decades dur-

marketing savvy and ing which overall revenues to Canada’s a $30-million deal universities fell 30 per cent—even as en-

rolments rose steadily at most institutions. The tight budgets that followed have forced many administrators to shed faculty in recent years, leaving the professors who remain to teach more—and often larger—classes. The result, says Davenport: “The time available for research has gone down.” Universities have also tried to cut corners by scrimping on maintenance to the research infrastructure. The fallout has been a steady deterioration in laboratories and equipment, even at relatively well-off institutions. Montreal’s McGill has deferred as much as $200 million in needed repairs. At the University of Alberta, one of the country’s most respected pharmaceutical programs occupies a building that Piper describes as “antiquated, out-of-date and almost condemned.” As facilities deteriorate, meanwhile, a growing number of the country’s best scientific and academic minds are adding their names to the so-called brain drain—tempted by offers from abroad, especially the United States and Britain, where science budgets are growing. “Sometimes it’s a question of salary,” observes Davenport. “But more often it’s a question of the overall support you can give someone for their scholarship.”

Even when top-flight researchers are persuaded to stay, the fruits of their scholarship sometimes slip outside the country. University of Western Ontario-based scientist Dr. Andrew Lazarovits has

turned down several U.S. recruiters to raise his young family in Canada. When his work in kidney transplants led to the discovery of potential treatments for organ rejection and autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s disease, the valuable breakthroughs were turned over to American investors for development. “I just couldn’t get the money here,” Lazarovits laments.

Four years of study by psychologists at York University’s LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence and Conflict Resolution in Toronto confirmed what some boys have long suspected: girls can be just as mean. More usefully, the study of bullying tactics deployed by children age 6 to 12 in Toronto schools identified useful methods that teachers and parents have used to reduce bullying behavior by as much as one-half.

If bullying would shake more money out of funding agencies, many normally mild-mannered academics might be willing to give it a try. Even the highly successful Makrides remarks jokingly that, “I didn’t steal, but I came near,” in raising money for her centre. Other researchers dismiss the amounts available in Canada as “trivial. Ottawa spends about $5 billion a year on science and technology research. Most of that, however, is spent in the government’s own laboratories. Combined funding for the Medical Research Council, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council—where universities secure the bulk of government support for research— is about $933 million.

Those figures are relatively paltry in light of what many other countries spend. Among the members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, only Italy devotes a smaller per-centage of gross domestic product to research. Meanwhile, Canada’s uni-

versifies shoulder a disproportionate amount of the nation’s research spending—fully 26 per cent, compared with 20 per cent in Sweden and 18 per cent in the United States and Japan. And that share is significantly greater in some provinces. After its merger next spring with the Technical University of Nova Scotia, it is estimated that Dalhousie will account for 82 per cent of externally funded research activity in the province.

Growing a better lawn is serious stuff at the University of Guelph Turfgrass Institute. Its test lawns put new varieties of bent grass for golf putting-greens on trial, compare the performances of different fertilizer compounds and experiment with non-chemical methods of weed control. Many of the more than three dozen research programs under way at any given time are funded by private companies—most of them chemical makers.

Guelph’s commitment to its turf—and the corporate clients that pay for research on it—

reflects what many university administrators agree is the way of the future: partnerships with whoever wields a chequebook. For many, that means selling research services to industry. But it can also mean universities starting up businesses of their own—or taking over services once delivered by governments. Guelph, in fact, is pursuing all three sources at once. Earlier this year, it launched a public company called GUARD Inc.—the acronym stands for Guelph University Alumni Research Development— and secured $10 million in private capital investment for its mandate to commercialize discoveries made by Guelph faculty. The university, which has a 20-per-cent stake in GUARD, hopes eventually to share in its profits.

In an even more radical departure, in late September the university signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ontario ministry of agriculture to assume the management of its laboratory and research divisions. The agreementwill see the province transfer $54 million in annual funding and $10 million in other revenue to the university, along with 7,000 acres of land, three agricultural colleges and 400 employees. As a result of the deal, says Guelph president Mordechai Rozanski, “We will have access to state-of-the-art equipment that we would never have been able to purchase.” Other universities are following much the same track. At UBC, a long-standing policy of spinning off discoveries made in university labs to private-sector ventures has resulted in the creation of more than 100 new companies. They now return more than $1.2 million a year to the university from technology licence fees and equity dividends. In Halifax, Dalhousie raises more than one-third of its $35-million annual research budget from contracts with private industry. Notes president Tom Través: ‘We see this as the significant area of growth in funding for the university.”

The growing need to find outside sponsors is forcing many

THE RESEARCH REPORT

Share of national research and development performed by universities

Expenditures on research and development as a percentage of GDP, 1993

academies to spend time and resources on activities other than direct research and scholarship. According to president John Stubbs, Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., has been “very vigorously promoting” an office that “acts as a marriage broker between the faculty’s research interests and the community’s research needs.” Many professors, meanwhile, find themselves devoting a growing number of hours to what they call “grantsmanship.” Says Lazarovits: “I spend one-third of my time looking after my patients. Three-quarters of the rest of my time is spent being creative to raise money.

That’s not what I’d rather do.”

Macbeth and Hamlet owe a debt to recently retired University of Alberta English professor John Orrell. After years of scholarly inquiry, he was able to pull together fragments of information from hundreds of sources that allowed him to guide architects attempting to reconstruct Shakespeare’s famed Globe Theatre on the banks of the Thames—the original design for which had long since been lost. The rebuilt theatre opened earlier this year.

Players might not be strutting and fretting upon the Globe’s stage at all, had Ottawa’s research funding cuts been made a little earlier. Projects in the humanities, which often promise no immediate commercial return, have been particularly hard hit. ‘The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council has never been able to fund the qualified research that people put to them,” asserts Donald Savage, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. “So the cuts make a bad situation worse.” At the same time, while research like Orrell’s does not require complex and costly laboratories, it does depend on library services, telephones and photocopiers, as well as computer time and Internet connections. For many investigators, the creeping erosion and obsolescence of the research infrastructure—to say nothing of actual scientific equipment—is just as frustrating as cuts to research grants.

In response, the Association of Universities and Colleges, in collaboration with Savage’s association and several smaller academic groups, launched a drive this fall to persuade Ottawa to pay more of their infrastructure costs. The campaign has two thrusts. One is to convince Ottawa to follow the lead of research-funding agencies in the United States, which add as much as 65 per cent onto the value of project grants to cover the indirect costs of maintaining universities’ physical plants.

At the same time, they hope to persuade the Liberal government to proceed with a widely rumored, $6-billion plan of job-creating investment focused on improving the nation’s infrastructure. The original Canada Infrastructure Works Program, undertaken in 1994, focused mainly on bricks and mortar projects such as roadways and sewer systems. Amid speculation that the Liberal government may float a second round of infrastructure spending in an anticipated election year, the academic groups are lobbying for Ottawa to earmark at least 20 per cent of any new program’s budget

Creation of knowledge determines employment

for upgrading university research facilities. “The first round of the program did very little to position the country for the new economy,” observes Alberta’s Piper. “The second phase should do better.”

Yellow flame fills the hallway. Searing gases choke the confined air. Thick smoke billows skyward. Appearances to the contrary, this briskly burning house is not a catastrophe. It is an experiment. The house is

one of six that University of Waterloo mechanical engineer Beth Weckman has wired with instruments and then set alight—with the co-operation of firefighters— to better understand the dynamics of fire. Her research has resulted in new approaches to combatting blazes, ones that reduce the danger for firefighters.

Federal Industry Minister John Manley is one of the federal decision-makers in the hot seat. His department controls 38 per cent of Ottawa’s science and technology spending, including two of the three granting councils. And he says universities “are right to raise the alarm” over cuts to research funding. At the same time, Manley insists that universities must accept their share of sacrifice in what he calls the “war” on the federal deficit. And he maintains that Ottawa has done much to mitigate the effects of those sacrifices. While budgets at the granting councils were trimmed by between 10 and 14 per cent, notes the minister, the rest of his department has been slashed by close to half. And the critical Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council has undertaken not to reduce funding for basic research—the kind least likely to attract private industry—below a floor of $200 million a year.

Still, under Manley, Ottawa’s granting councils have directed a growing share of their diminishing budgets to university research that has also secured funding from industry. “According to the OECD,” says Manley, “we have provided the most generous tax credits for R and D in the developed world. A dollar spent on R and D in Canada costs as low as 68 cents.” And while Manley says that he supports the universities’ appeal for a share of any spending on infrastructure, he rejects the notion that Ottawa should provide continuing support for university maintenance. “I don’t see why we should be replacing the hood fans in a chemistry lab at a local university,” says the minister. ‘The responsibility for postsecondary education is that of the provinces.”

That may be true. But in the global economy, it is increasingly difficult to see any of the issues surrounding university research as exclusively local. “Canada cannot choose to participate or not to participate in the information revolution,” notes Toronto’s Prichard. “The question is, ‘How can we participate to the benefit of the greatest number of Canadians?’ ” Universities will be central to answering that question. And wherever the money comes from, it is an answer that is certain to affect all Canadians, on and off campus alike.

LUKE FISHER