Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Visualizing The Effects Of Postsecondary Funding Cuts

What long-term effects might result from the recent provincial cuts to postsecondary funding?  No one is in a position to answer that question.  However, a recent paper of mine explores how to visualize a century of a department’s history, and hints at a possible answer by turning to the not too distant past.

The academic year 2009-10 marked the 100th anniversary of a psychology department at the University of Alberta.  Around this time, the chair of the department asked a small number of people to gather some information and relics to commemorate this event.  My task became generating a roster of the department’s full-time faculty members for each year of its history.  I began this task by examining rosters published online in the University calendar, as well as a couple of published department histories.  This evolved into spending many, many hours at the Law Library, and later at the Book Depository, going through older (never digitized!) calendars.  In the end, I produced an unwieldy spreadsheet that documented this aspect of department history.

I had two problems.  The first was to manipulate the spreadsheet into a form, preferably visual, for easy access and communication.  The second was to convert my long hours of research into something useful (i.e. a publication).  I solved the first problem by using a particular representation, called a Gantt chart that provided an engaging visualization of department history for public display.  I also leaned on my computational vision background to perform some algorithmic processing of this chart to pull additional information out of it.  This solved the second problem, for I wrote a paper about these visual methods, a manuscript that recently appeared in the journal History of Psychology.

Below you will find one of the less challenging analyses of the Gantt chart.  It graphs the total number of faculty members in the department for each year of its history.
This graph reveals four different phases of departmental dynamics.  The first is a long period of slow growth in a small department, ranging from 1909 to 1945.  The second is a long period of steady growth between 1945 and 1988.  The department grew in size by about one faculty member per year over this period.  The third is from 1988 to 2001, and marks a dramatic reduction in the number of faculty members.  The final phase is from 2001 to the present, where there has been some recovery of department size, but not to historical levels.

The sudden downturn in department size, the third phase of the graph, is of interest today.  This downturn reflects changes in provincial funding.  This was a time in which per capita funding for Alberta postsecondary institutions declined by between 36% and 46%.  For instance, the Klein budget of 1993 cut $140 million from postsecondary education.  Premier Klein said of that budget that “you have to hunt where the ducks are”, a line recently echoed by the current minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education.

The graph suggests that after the ducks were hunted, the hunters left, along with a sizable number of faculty members who were not replaced.  This was a long lasting effect: two decades after the Klein cuts, department size had not recovered.  Is a similar downward trend on the horizon as a long-term effect of the recent Redford budget?


Dawson, M. R. W. (2013). A case study in Gantt charts as historiophoty: A century of psychology at the University of Alberta. History of Psychology, 16, 145-157. pdf version: 315 kb

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Changing Perspectives On Postsecondary Education

In September 2009, the Government of Alberta transformed two Albertan colleges, Mount Royal and Grant MacEwan, into universities.  According to the provincial government, this transformation met students’ needs and converged with the province’s economic goals. 

For instance, the government’s September 3 2009 press release about Mount Royal’s transformation noted “Mount Royal University’s programs are key to our province’s ability to meet the needs of learners, taxpayers and society while building our knowledge-based economy,” said Doug Horner, Minister of Advanced Education and Technology. “I support and commend Mount Royal’s role in offering undergraduate degrees and the wide range of programming they’ve built over the past number of years.”

Similarly,  the government celebrated MacEwan’s change in a September 24 2009 press release that quoted Minister Horner on MacEwan’s role as follows: “Grant MacEwan University’s commitment to affordable, accessible and quality education mirrors the goals of Campus Alberta, which is to provide the right programs to learners where and when they need them.”

Times have certainly changed.  In four short years, the government’s goals have altered from providing “the right programs to learners where and when they need them” to searching for administrative efficiencies and removing redundancies.

The September 24 2009 press release presented the perspective of the previous premier: “The needs of Alberta students are changing and our world-class post-secondary institutions are ahead of the curve in terms of providing the best educational opportunities anywhere,” said Premier Ed Stelmach. “Grant MacEwan University is an outstanding institution that has shown there is an exciting alternative for undergraduate studies.”

According to a March 9 2013 Edmonton Journal quote, current Premier Alison Redford has a very different view: "We cannot be all things to all people, everywhere.  We cannot be 26 postsecondary institutions that all have equivalent departments of political science and English and history and chemistry and biology and business. And, and, and," she said.  The result: a $147 million cut in postsecondary funding.

There has been a flurry of news stories in the last short while that illustrate the consequences of this funding decision.  There have been suspended programs at Mount Royal University and at Red Deer College.  Major faculties at the University of Alberta have announced cuts that include a 20% reduction in graduate student support.  Reports out of the University of Calgary include program cuts and reductions in student admissions.  This news is profoundly distressing.  More is on the way.

The most recent provincial budget harms the quality of education that students receive, reducing their options, and increasing their class sizes.  The evidence of this is clear, and appears daily in the newspapers.  The most frustrating aspect of this to me is the view of the government that it is supporting students, and not affecting their postsecondary experience.  A more honest approach, in my view, would be to admit that the government’s perspective has changed profoundly in the past four years, to the detriment of postsecondary education – and its students.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Sitting In My Office Until I Die

When I started this blog, I imagined that there might be more cognition, and less reality.  However, the business of discovering and disseminating cognitive science currently faces the harsh reality of our recent provincial budget.  I now find myself quoting Alberta Hansard!

Consider a small exchange at the Alberta Legislature that occurred Tuesday afternoon, May 7, 2013.  Dr. Neil Brown, the progressive conservative MLA for Calgary-Mackay-Nose Hill asked why the government has not allowed postsecondary institutions to adjust tuition fees for the increased cost of living.  He prefaced his question with a reference to faculty retirement packages: “Postsecondary institutions in Alberta are struggling to cope with the 2013 budget cuts, and some of them are offering retirement packages to faculty, including some of our leading researchers.”

Dr. Brown addressed his question to Thomas Lukaszuk, the Deputy Premier and the Minister for Enterprise and Advanced Education.  Mr. Lukaszuk answered as follows:

“Well, Mr. Speaker, offering early retirement packages to tenured professors, who have no mandatory retirement age and actually can sit in office till they die, is not perhaps a bad idea if they choose to take those retirement packages, but we were very, very clear in our messaging. We will not be balancing the budgets of this province or our provincial universities, schools, and colleges on the backs of students. We have to make sure that we have efficiencies in the system, that we run those institutions as efficiently as possible before we ask students to pay additional money through tuition or taxpayers to invest additional dollars into the institutes.”

I was astonished by the minister’s comments about retirement in his answer; I have bolded them to bring them to your attention.  They seem to imply that once a university professor achieves tenure, they are strolling along easy street.  Something like that might be true of some political institutions – the Canadian Senate? – but  not of our postsecondary schools.  I would like to make a few quick points in response to the minister’s answer:
  1. It is true that there is no mandatory retirement age at the University of Alberta.  However, I do not believe that is true of all of our postsecondary institutions.
  2. Achieving tenure is an important milestone in a career, but it does not eliminate the challenge of the job, or its accountability.  It increases it.
  3. I am accountable for my job performance.  Each year I compile an annual report, a document used to evaluate my performance (annually).  This evaluation considers all three cornerstones of my position: teaching, research, and service.  If I am not performing to expectation, then there are mechanisms in place to remove me – even if I am tenured.
  4. Tenure and promotion lead to more accountability, not less.  As I proceeded through academic ranks, the expectations about my performance increased.  The university expects full professors to do much more than assistant professors do!
  5. I am accountable for every class I teach.  Near the end of each course, students anonymously evaluate my teaching performance along a number of different dimensions.  The results of these evaluations are publicly available to any student or faculty member who has a valid University of Alberta computing id.  The Chair of my Department uses these results as part of my annual overall evaluation.
  6. I am accountable for all of my research.  Any grant that I apply for, or any manuscript that I publish, is subject to peer review.  This means that my grant proposals, or the manuscripts that describe my research, face external evaluation before being successful.  Furthermore, this evaluation is external to my university – it taps into the opinions of national and international experts.  If these experts do not think highly of my efforts, then I do not publish, which means I perish – probably as the result of unfavorable annual evaluations.
  7. I am only as good as my next discovery.  What do university researchers publish? They publish new discoveries – their novel additions to our understanding of the world.  In order to keep publishing (and to keep from perishing), we must be innovative.  We always face the challenge of pushing the edge of the envelope in our disciplines.  Every day we deal with the pressure of what to do next, with the challenge of coming up with new answers to questions.  To succeed in our research – for which we are constantly accountable – we must always find unbroken paths. The pressure to do so can be unbearable.
 When I was a senior undergraduate, I submitted a manuscript to a leading journal for review.  The reviewers’ comments were very cutting, the paper rejected.  My mentor, Albert Katz took the opportunity to teach me a life lesson about academia.  “Mike,” he said, “you have to realize that this is a terrible job because people just shit on you all of the time.”  His advice did not turn me away from the profession – but it was certainly true.

Having no mandatory retirement age, it seems in principle that I could sit in my office until I die.  In practice, to pull that off I had better be working damned hard while I sit, because that is what my department, my university, and my peers across the country and the world expect of me.  That is not cognition – but it is reality.

Monday, May 06, 2013

‘Speed Dating’ For Blue Sky Research

My previous post, “On An Unnamed Institution to Commercialize Research”, was a fairly short and skeptical piece on a proposed government initiative.  Below, inspired by some recent reading, is a more constructive take on a related issue.

A recent article in the National Post brought my attention to a new book by eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson.  Wilson’s book, Letters to a Young Scientist, made the news because of his controversial view that budding scientists do not need to acquire advanced mathematical training.  He writes, “Many of the most successful scientists in the world today are mathematically no more than semiliterate.”

Intrigued, I purchased a copy of Wilson’s book, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  Wilson’s passion for science is infectious and inspiring, even to someone like myself who has been in the business for over a quarter of a century.  With our federal government frequently accused of being engaged in a war against science, and with our provincial government making large cuts to funds for postsecondary education, inspiration is in short supply, so I am very appreciative of Wilson’s letters.  His book also provides an interesting perspective on some of the issues currently facing Alberta postsecondary education.

Consider a recent announcement by the minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education about a planned institute for commercializing research.  Apparently, one of the goals of this institute is to foster cooperation amongst researchers at different Albertan schools.  The Edmonton Journal reports, “The institute will provide a forum where academics from different campus can come together. Currently, cooperation is limited because campuses compete for research grants.”  I wonder, though, whether this is the kind of cooperation best suited to increase applied research.  Inspired by Wilson’s book, a different (and possibly less expensive) type of cooperation comes to my mind.

Wilson argues that pure mathematicians develop theorems and models that are elegant in their own right.  However, he feels that mathematicians do not ground their work in real world phenomena.  Wilson is a proponent of such grounding; he counsels young scientists to seek out mathematicians, and to provide them real-world scenarios for linking to extant mathematics.  Wilson states his ‘first principle’ about the relationship between scientists and mathematicians:  “It is far easier for scientists to acquire needed collaboration from mathematicians and statisticians than it is for mathematicians and statisticians to find scientists to make use of their equations.”

It seems to me that a modified version of Wilson’s first principle has broader scope.  Mathematics should not be singled out; a more fruitful principle would consider the relationship between pure research (often called ‘blue sky research’ in Albertan discussions) and applied research or commercialized research.  A broader principle suggests a route for connecting companies and blue sky researchers: “It is far easier for companies to acquire needed collaboration from blue sky researchers than it is for blue sky researchers to find companies to make use of their theories.” 

I do blue sky research; I am quite adept at producing pure research related to a diversity of domains.   I also sympathize with the goal of applying my work.  However, I do not believe that this is hindered because I have no other scientists to cooperate with, as is suggested by the nature of the planned institute.   Wilson’s view is that science is an individual affair.  The most innovative scientists of Wilson’s experience “prefer to take first steps alone.”  I agree.

Instead, my problem is that I am completely na├»ve about the nature of potential applications for my work.  I do not need other scientists.  I need companies, to inform me about their applied problems, in the hope that I might see a potential solution in the blue sky research that I already do.

How might applied problems come my way?  One model might be a think tank the Santa Fe Institute, which Wilson has experienced:  “The idea in these places is to feed and house very smart people and let them wander about, meet in small groups over coffee and croissants, and bounce ideas off each other.”  Perhaps the planned Alberta institute will be a think tank like this.

A cheaper, more efficient model does not require the creation of a think tank or an institute.  Instead, it simply involves organizing a meeting or a short convention.  I imagine a simple gathering involving a diversity of company representatives and a diversity of blue sky researchers.  For a short interval – no more than five minutes -- a company representative interacts with a researcher, seeking common ground.  The former could pitch a problem, while the latter could pitch a methodology.  When the interval is over, the process begins again involving new pairings of people.  Think of it as a kind of speed dating for blue sky research.

The diversity of those involved in this ‘speed dating’ is critical.  Imagine a company that has some sort of heavy industry pattern recognition problem to solve, and imagine further that they are seeking university researchers to help deal with it.  Perhaps they have already used the internet to identify potential candidates, possibly by scanning ‘people’ listings for various faculties and departments on the University of Alberta website.

My suspicion is that one name that they would not come up with is mine.  What could a member of a psychology department, who is furthermore in the Faculty of Arts, and whose expertise is in ‘foundations of cognitive science’ possibly have to offer them?

If they encountered me in the ‘speed dating’ scenario, then I think they would be surprised.  They would find out that I have lots of pattern recognition expertise, that I have invented a new kind of artificial neural network, that I am currently exploring the relation between probability theory and classification, that I have some expertise in robotics, that I have lots of experience with multivariate statistics, … I could put a lot in my quick ‘speed dating’ pitch!  To their surprise, they might find that an Arts psychologist has the expertise to solve their heavy duty problem.  And, of course, I would have discovered a potential application for my blue sky research, which might be commercialized using existing mechanisms at my university.

The key point to the ‘speed dating’ idea is that I am not alone.  Most of my colleagues, across the various departments and faculties at Albertan universities, have amassed large degrees of expertise that could have economic applications, provided their blue sky work were to be matched with promising applied problems.  Companies might be surprised at what they find when they explore blue sky research conducted in areas that they would ordinarily ignore.

 We – companies and blue sky researchers alike -- need to increase the likelihood that such matches occur.  We need to explore avenues that are unconventional, another message central to Wilson’s book.

When Claude Shannon provided mathematical accounts of circuits, he did not revolutionize electric engineering because he linked his work with that of other engineers.  He succeeded by connecting problems with electric circuit design to something that he learned about in his philosophy courses – Boole’s logic.  In making this strange connection, Shannon was less than conventional, and illustrated another of Wilson’s principles: “March away from the sound of the guns.  Observe the fray from a distance, and while you are at it, consider making your own fray.”


Below is a link to information about E.O. Wilson's latest book on Amazon.ca:

Wilson, Edward O. (2013) Letters To A Young Scientist. Livestrong Publishing, New York.

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.