Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 1999

Minister Rapped for Reaping the Benefits

In a strongly worded letter to Industry Minister John Manley last week, CAUT President Bill Graham called on the minister to stop a controversial federal report advocating increased emphasis on the commercialization of university research.

This followed CAUT Council's unanimous adoption of a resolution in opposition to the draft report prepared by the Expert Panel on the Commercialization of University Research Public Investments in University Research: Reaping the Benefits, released at the end of March.

The report calls for commercialization to be the fourth mission of the university, in addition to teaching, research and community service.

It also proposes that all intellectual property created in federally funded research become the property of the university to facilitate its transfer to the private sector. University ownership is to be achieved either by federal legislation or by granting council policy that would deny funds to researchers at any university which did not have ownership of all intellectual property.

In addition, the report calls for universities to be given more money to expand their commercialization offices and activities. It also proposes stimulating business through tax breaks for high income earners and recipients of employee share options. Finally, in the context of a greater focus on commercialization, the report recommends the government consider increasing money for university research.

"The report shows little understanding of universities and the conditions that make them valuable to society," said Graham. "We are deeply troubled by the call for commercialization to become a key mission of the university - alongside teaching, research, and community service. Our public educational system is vital to sustaining the character and purpose of Canadian social, economic and political life. To accomplish that goal, our public educational institutions must be free of encumbrances resulting from compulsory ties to the corporate and commercial world - or to any other special interest. Yet this is precisely what the report recommends."

The report attacks university researchers and, in the only bold-faced and italicized sentence in the document, implies that their behaviour is anti-Canadian -- arguing that leaving ownership in their hands "is tantamount to providing a vehicle to transfer significant amounts of valuable technology out of the country."

"The criticism is misplaced," says Graham. "It ignores the long history of high-tech Canadian corporations actively courting foreign owners as the best route to expand. Moreover, most patentable inventions, if of any value, are minor improvements to existing products or manufacturing processes and will be primarily of interest to those already operating in the field ­ many of them foreign operations. Protecting Canadian interests is hardly easy, but blaming university researchers for the problem is unfair and misleading."

Graham also told the minister the panel seems unaware of the history of scientific development. "The report's single-minded interest in commercialization blinds it to the fact that most discoveries of ultimate commercial importance came from basic research in which no commercial outcome seemed likely at the outset," Graham noted.

"Had the policies recommended by the panel been in place over the last 100 years, there would have been little support for most of the research that has been of greatest commercial importance."

Graham says the report reflects an insensitivity to the importance of social and cultural values that underlie much research that benefits Canadians without generating products with commercial value.

CAUT has also expressed concern about how the report was prepared and the undue haste with which it is being pushed forward.

"There was no consultation with faculty or researchers until the report was sent to us on March 28," said James Turk, Executive Director of CAUT. "Then we were told the report was going to the Prime Minister's Advisory Council on Science and Technology on May 11 and to Cabinet on May 29."

"It is clear the federal government wanted no real input," Turk added.

The expert panel is chaired by Pierre Fortier, CEO of Innovitech Inc. (six of the nine members of the panel are presidents or vice-presidents of corporations, including the Royal Bank and Nortel Networks). Two members represent university administrations: James Murray, Associate Vice-President of Research/Industry Relations at the University of Alberta and Robert Miller Jr., Associate Vice-Provost for Research at the University of Washington in Seattle. The final member is Tom Brzustowski, President of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Copies of the draft report were distributed to each faculty association at the April CAUT Council meeting and should be available at the local association office.