Universities Reliance on Private Research Funding Requires Delicate Balance

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Windsor Star/Dave Waddell

A recent Canadian Association of University Teachers’ report expresses concerns about the growing role of private industry in funding university research, but the incentives and potential benefits of such partnerships ensure they’ll only become more commonplace.

“There is a lot of incentive to have money from industry partners,” said Dr. Tricia Carmichael, an associate professor in chemistry who is part of a group doing research in bendable electronics at the University of Windsor.

“If you get a grant from industry, you can apply to get a dollar-for-dollar match from the federal government and there are also some provincial programs available. It’s a motivation because you can use the original private money to spin it off into a lot more.”

The Windsor native added the chance of getting government dollars increases when you already have private money in hand.

The funding landscape, she said, “certainly has changed from when I was a grad student in the late 1990s,” said Carmichael, who worked for six years at IBM’s research headquarters in New York State  before returning to her alma mater in 2005.

“At that time, it was rare to have industrial partners funding research. These matching programs are new.”

The debate over the private-public relationship isn’t new.

It’s just become a more critical one with governments – the primary source of funding in the past – facing challenging economic times.

“There’s always been a tension,” said Dr. Michael Siu, the University of Windsor’s vice-president of research.

“I think we have to be cautious to manage that tension so there are actual benefits for universities, industry and the community.”

Siu was reacting to the CAUT report which concluded 10 of the 12 multimillion-dollar deals in its study contained violations of the institution’s own academic integrity standards.

The report also said universities were in danger of turning into branch research plants for the private sector with academic freedom being part of the collateral damage.

“That’s over-exaggerated,” Siu said.  “We do have a lot of these agreements too.

“Typically, they’re not direct relationships with industry. Usually there’s a government agency, making it a three-way partnership.

“We have a buffer to make sure we do it right.”

While Carmichael’s recently published project was funded by public dollars, she’s done other privately financed research in the same area of study.

“There’s always going to be some restrictions,” Carmichael said.

“Companies want their money to go to what they’re interested in. That’s acceptable.

“In any collaboration, the interests should overlap.

“Where you get in trouble, is if a company wants to show something and the research doesn’t do that. Science isn’t always co-operative.”

Other common areas of irritation are control of publishing the findings, intellectual property rights and agreement transparency.

Any agreement involving federal government monies requires that results be published within six months.

At Windsor, Carmichael said she’s never been in a situation where she felt the integrity of her work was being compromised, nor has she heard such complaints from her faculty colleagues.

“To me it’s not dangerous as long as our faculty’s interests are protected,” Siu said.

He added there are plenty of examples at the school of successful partnerships with the private sector.

He cites such projects as Auto21 Network of Centres of Excellence which has its national headquarters at Windsor. That project involves more than 120 automotive industry and government partners.

Another research project winning accolades is the university’s partnership with Think2Learn and the Ontario Brain Institute, examining how computer games can be used to improve the cognitive processes in children with learning disabilities.

Scott O’Neil, St. Clair College’s director of development and research, said the community college system is already very comfortable with collaborative projects with industry.

“The government policy is saying you have to have business investing dollars to get access to public dollars,” O’Neil said.

“Governments want more direct economic benefits from the research being funded. The government is actually pushing universities a bit towards the community college style.”

O’Neil said St. Clair’s faculty and students regularly work on projects with industry partners. Among those projects is one for Sober Steering, a system which can detect a driver’s alcohol level and prevent the vehicle from starting.

The college has also worked with companies in developing new medical devices, new construction materials and a glow-in-the-dark toilet seat to aid seniors at night.

“They’ve always been solution-based projects,” O’Neil said.

The college is currently working on ways to integrate these types of projects into course curriculum.

“You don’t have to take (industry’s) money,” O’Neil said of CAUT concerns.

“Industry will always find a prof whose research interests align with their interests. With the global marketplace, they don’t have to limit themselves to schools in their own backyard either.”