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CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 1999

Fighting for the Freedom of Inquiry

Bill Graham
They are still at it, the apologists for the commercialization of publicly-funded higher education and research. Small teams of government folk are holding consultations in various places concerning the report of the Expert Panel on the Commercialization of University Research. They are telling everyone the report is being well received. They are telling the same thing to the federal government. They are saying it has already been approved by the Prime Minister's Advisory Council on Science and Technology.

Early in October, CAUT met with Tom Brzustowski, president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and two others to discuss the expert panel's recommendations. CAUT told Brzustowski the report deserved a stake through its heart. We catalogued in great detail the fundamental flaws in the report from its proposal that commercialization become a fundamental mission of universities (affecting promotion and tenure), to its treatment of intellectual property, creating subdivisions dedicated to commercialization and a cadre of innovation-gauleiters.

CAUT also told the delegation it would be prepared to participate in a well-thought-out and balanced report on the relationship between basic and applied research, for CAUT has never been opposed to applied research, or the commercialization of it, so long as academic priorities and academic freedom are preserved, and so long as publicly-funded research is carried out in the public interest and for the public good.

It is notable that even many members of the "innovation community" in Canadian universities -- that is, those already involved in the transfer of knowledge for commercial purposes -- have condemned the report. Nobel Prize Laureate John Polanyi has done so on many occasions. "The criterion of wealth creation is going to rule," he said. "This is the major threat to universities in the coming decade."

But powerful forces are behind the report, and it isn't something that just dropped off the shelf and will be swept under the carpet because wise people are opposed to it. Its basic message has been in the works for many years. The report defines commercialization as "Innovation: the process of bringing new goods and services to market, or the result of that process."

Four years ago a symposium on research funding was sponsored by Industry Canada, the three federal granting councils, and corporations such as Alcan and Northern Telecom. The message was similar; Brzustowski, newly appointed as president of NSERC, defined it as "Innovation: the process of bringing new goods and services to market ­ value added."

Seven years before that, in 1988, the Science Council of Canada concluded a three-year investigation of university/ industry linkages with a report that said universities must engage more actively in the economic renewal of Canada by reorienting their activities to provide the teaching and research required by the private sector.

"What is at stake," said Ursula Franklin, metallurgist and university professor emerita at the University of Toronto, "is the commercial takeover of higher education." She was giving the keynote address at the CAUT conference, "Universities and Colleges in the Public Interest: Stopping the Commercial Takeover of Post-Secondary Education."

In the past, knowledge was mobilized by the state and the military for their research interests. Commercialization is merely the privatization of war. It worked well for the military; it works well for the private sector.

University teachers and academic librarians must respond clearly and decisively, and now. The free and unfettered creation, preservation, dissemination and exchange of knowledge are at stake. Universities are more than production sites (in the commercial sense), but the forces against us are great. The Business Council on National Issues and its right-wing think tanks want to prevent further federal core funding of universities in favour of targeted funding and promoting partnerships between universities and the private sector for the sake of the commercial exploitation of knowledge created by university researchers.

In the Orwellian language of the federal government, private sector objectives and gains become translated into "the public good"; university teachers and academic librarians operating in the public interest become "special interest groups." The fundamental issue is: who controls what research will be publicly funded? The answer, increasingly is -- private sector corporations in search of profits. To the barricades!

Background: CAUTNow! Vol. 1, Nos. 1, 2 & 4 available at