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CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2000

Star Wars Is Coming to a University Near You

Bill Graham

The Canada Research Chairs program may mean black holes at other universities and create a two-tier status system among Canadian universities.

The Canada Research Chairs program (CRC) is just offshore – and the first wave will hit our universities in September. Universities will be submitting their strategic research plans for the first slate of nominations to the CRC Steering Committee early in September 2000.

Under the CRC program the federal government will commit $900 million to create 2,000 chairs in Canadian universities for research "stars." There will be 1,000 Tier I chairs for current research stars, and 1,000 Tier II chairs for future research stars. Universities will receive $200,000 per year for each Tier I chair, and $100,000 per year for each Tier II chair, for as long as the federal money is available (currently three years).

The government says its objectives are to "establish world-class centres of research excellence" and to "offset brain drain pressures for global research stars."

Surely, when governments put up so much money for faculty positions it is good medicine for what ails our anaemic universities, isn't it? Yes, the money is good medicine, but watch out for the side effects. They will result in profound restructuring of Canada's public university system.

First, the CRC program isn't based on building research capacity across the entire system. Instead it is aimed at creating flagship centres of research intensity. The folks who designed it believe that "productive jurisdictions" pursue "competitive advantage" by avoiding the pitfalls of attempting to support research broadly across the spectrum of institutions at the expense of developing flagship institutions which are key to research excellence and innovation in a knowledge-based economy.

As one administrator puts it, "flagship research programs are those that conduct internationally significant research, that foster global profiles, networks and impact, and that achieve significant success in national and global research competition."

The ruling viewpoint says the rapid emergence of the intensely competitive knowledge/education marketplace in which innovation drives economic growth requires a new strategic reallocation of resources to close the "innovation gap" between Canada and other leading nations.

The report of the so-called Expert Panel on the Commercialization of University Research made the case clearly enough. That report may be dead, but its underlying ideas and initiatives are alive and operational inside federal and provincial governments. This was made clear at the symposium, "Brain Gain 2000," sponsored by the Ontario Research and Development Challenge Fund held in Toronto on June 1, 2000.

The ruling ideas expressed at the symposium were: (a) we need to create a culture of innovation to develop and commercialize new ideas by (b) concentrating research funding in cross-disciplinary clusters and networks which are (c) tied to regions and centres of innovative research – e.g., "university districts" for research in areas such as biotech and infotech – and which (d) can develop researchers as entrepreneurs to increase productivity by (e) hiring stars who should be paid whatever it takes and (f) provided with selective tax benefits and stock options provided (g) they transfer their intellectual property to the private sector for commercialization.

Faculty unions, the tenure system and government block grants to institutions were seen as obstacles to this brave new world. A Canadian "Innovation Policy" should be developed, it was urged, which would reduce individual and corporate taxes as well as capital gains taxes.

The Canada Research Chairs "Star Wars" Program fits the bill. It will create a two-tier status system among Canadian universities: the flagship research centres and those universities primarily devoted to teaching where research resources will be even scarcer than at present.

But there is also some potentially bad medicine for the larger flagship universities as well, including the prime beneficiaries of the CRC program. Faculty members at these universities, and their faculty associations, should be worried – and watchful – for several reasons. Market forces already create salary differentials among faculty with a wide range of professional schools as well as arts and science, and the differences are growing as the competition among universities for the best talent intensifies.

Competition for the research stars will be even greater, and it will create not only a greater salary difference between the cadre of stars and those who labour in the trenches, but it will create a status-and-resource-access gap as well.

Consider the University of Toronto, for example. It will receive an estimated 251 chairs over the five-year period: 132 in health sciences, 80 in engineering and natural sciences, and 39 in social sciences and humanities. Already humanities and social sciences are shrinking in relation to other programs. That trend likely will speed up. And the 251 chairs will be concentrated as follows: a number of "broad research thrusts" will be identified; and each "thrust" will incorporate a number of "chair clusters" ranging across academic disciplines and divisions.

By the university's own admission, the CRC program "will have a very significant effect in shaping the academic enterprise of the university." Some programs will have to bite the dust so the favoured can be secure. Thus, the future shape of the university and its academic programs will be determined by this program. And, since the level of funding provided by the program will not cover the full costs to support the chairs, and since the future of government funding is not certain beyond the present $900 million (meaning the university itself may have to find its ongoing support for the chairs) there could be, in the immortal words of Ross Perot, "a giant sucking sound" as money is drawn from non-cluster academic areas to support the clusters.

Faculty members and their associations across Canada, perhaps especially at the flagship centres of innovative research, will have to be alert. If you doubt the connection between the CRC program and the Report of the Expert Panel on the Commercialization of University Research you only need attend to who is in charge of determining who gets the chairs and what research-innovative clusters will be emphasized. The CRC Steering Committee is composed of Industry Canada, the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the grant-ing councils.

One sign of hope for the University of Toronto rests in its new president, Robert Birgeneau, who is coming from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which has a lot of experience in the area of research concentrations. In addition, Dr. Birgeneau was almost the only voice of reason at the recent brain gain symposium in Toronto. His remarks should be heard by all university presidents.

He disagreed with the tax-cutting agenda, arguing that in Canada "we get something for the taxes we pay: good health care. In the U.S. the health care system is outrageous."

He urged that universities should not pay their stars significantly more than others. At MIT, he said, there is a rather narrow range of salaries. He recommended looking for the best young talent to develop rather than emphasizing established stars.

He suggested that instead of kicking upstairs to administrative positions those who have not been strong teachers and researchers, universities ought to convince their best scholars to take leadership positions to create a scholarly climate by example.

The coming Star Wars program will be a challenge to us all.

Bill Graham is past president of CAUT.

"The Canada Research Chairs: Doing Industry's Research," was published as the CAUT Education Review, Vol. 2, No. 2 (May/June 2000).