Sunday, September 29, 2013

MIT Alberta?

Late last week, the Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education for the Government of Alberta announced the members of a panel whose task is organizing a new “Institute for applied research and commercialization”, an institute that the government believes will be crucial for diversifying the Albertan economy.  The panel consists of 10 international experts, all of whom are experienced in similar agencies across the globe as well as with the Albertan context, according to a story in the Edmonton Journal.  The panel is chaired by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Dr. Daniel Roos, who is their Japan Steel Industry Professor of Engineering Systems and Civil and Environmental Engineering.  According to the Edmonton Journal, for the past 18 months Dr. Roos has been involved with the University of Alberta on a related issue, and has written a report.  Thus the committee is, according to the Minister, expected to hit the ground running and will deliver a set of recommendations about how to proceed with the new institute in a matter of weeks.

Dr. Roos’ experience with “similar agencies across the globe” comes from his being director of the MIT Portugal Program.  According to its website, MIT Portugal “is an international collaboration seeking to demonstrate that an investment in science, technology and higher education can have a positive, lasting impact on the economy by addressing key societal issues through quality education and research in the emerging field of engineering systems.”  It is probably much too early to do so – the organizing panel hasn’t even met – but I thought that I would take a while browsing through the MIT Portugal website to see a glimmer of what might be on the horizon here in Alberta.

MIT Portugal, focused exclusively on engineering, involves four entities: the government of Portugal, seven Portuguese universities and 14 Portuguese research centers, industry, and MIT.  MIT Portugal targets four areas that are viewed as keys to economic development and societal impact: sustainable energy systems, transportation systems, bio-engineering systems and advanced manufacturing.  It began in October 2006; “government funding to MIT and partner Portuguese institutions supports this unique collaboration.”  I have been unable to find on the MIT Portugal website any mention of how much government funding is involved, how much industry funding is involved, and the like.  There are a number of attractive publications about its research activities.

MIT Portugal only offers three kinds of graduate degrees:  PhDs, Master’s, and Executive Master’s.  It is not involved in undergraduate training.  It views as one of its key accomplishments is “developing highly skilled human resources in the scientific and technological community in Portugal.”  On more than one page of its website one can find numbers related to how many graduate students have been trained since MIT Portugal’s creation. Financial numbers, however, are not easily found on the website.  Dollar values related to MIT Portugal’s expenditures, or to the economic impact of its research, or to industry contributions to its programs, do not appear to be publicly available.  Perhaps someone else will have better luck searching for them than I did.

One wonders if MIT Portugal will provide a model for the new Albertan institute.  If so, we would expect that it would have these general properties: it would use existing infrastructure (current Albertan universities and labs), it would add a new administrative component (to organize its courses, degrees, etc.), it would focus on a small number of areas predicted to be high reward, and it would only train graduate students.  Of course, it would also require specialized government funding (e.g. grant support to foster research in targeted areas).  Would it also require funding to obtain external expertise as leverage to diversify the provincial economy?  Is MIT Alberta on the horzion?  Presumably we will have a much better idea of the structure and costs of this new institute, and how its funding will affect the funding of other postsecondary schools in Alberta, in a matter of weeks after the new panel presents its recommendations.

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