Monday, May 06, 2013

On An Unnamed Institute to Commercialize Research

One of the themes concerning Alberta’s reduced postsecondary funding is the need to reorganize provincial universities and colleges so that they can contribute more to the provincial economy.  The sense is that currently our institutions are too concerned with pure research and are not conducting enough applied research.  The government is using reduced funding to, in part, encourage postsecondary schools to change their priorities.

The most recent example of the government’s intent comes from Thomas Lukaszuk, minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education.  The Edmonton Journal reported his announcement that a new institute that will help colleges and universities commercialize their research in partnership with private companies and other agencies is underway.   According to the Journal, Lukaszuk said that “the institute, as yet unnamed, will be open to researchers and students from any campus in Alberta, and serve as a major vehicle for diversifying the economy. It should eventually generate a stream of royalties for campuses and businesses.”

Proper evaluation of this announcement requires more details.  In addition to having no name, there is no indication about funding for this institute, whether it will employ its own researchers, or whether it will offer degrees.  The whole idea could be good, but it could also be very, very bad.  Though lacking crucial information, I feel obliged to make a couple of pre-emptive points.  A previous post of mine, “Enterprise and Advanced Education”, considered some topics related to research commercialization that could stand some repetition.  I will just give some highlights here; for more details, please see that earlier blog entry.

First, there is a core incompatibility between the mission of publicly funded research and the mission of private, commercialized research.  The former is governed by the rule “publish or perish”; its mandate is to make its results publicly available as soon as possible.  The latter follows the rule “silence is golden”, because publishing research results poses problems for patenting discoveries.  The creators of this institute must chart a very difficult course between these opposing mandates, addressing such thorny ideas as ownership of ideas, publication of discoveries, and the like if they wish to recruit current university scientists in Alberta.

Second, there already exist channels for commercializing university research.  For example, the University of Alberta was involved in creating TEC Alberta in 2006; last year it advised hundreds of clients who generated millions of dollars in revenue.  The creators of this institute must defend the need for yet another channel for research commercialization, particularly if the government funds it handsomely.  One of the goals of the March budget’s large cut to postsecondary funding was to inspire the discovery of administrative efficiencies and the removal of redundancies.  Presumably, strong arguments that the new institute is not a move in a redundant direction are on the horizon.
Third, Lukaszuks’ vision of the new institute is ambitious. According to the Edmonton Journal, the minister hopes that it will evolve into something similar to the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”  Given this vision, one would expect that the new institute – like MIT – will grant degrees.  This raises the redundancy issue again.  If our current postsecondary model is redundant enough to warrant huge cuts in operating funds, then why is a new degree granting institute required? If this is not so, then a different problem emerges. There are prototypical examples of non-degree granting organizations that use researchers to develop new products, like Apple and Google. We do not call them institutes – we call them companies.

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