Does Centralizing Research Hurt the Provinces?

Debate in Canada pits biggest universities against smaller ones, and threatens hopes of a have-not region

Thierry Chopin

Tasting kelps cultivated at an Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture (IMTA) site in the Bay of Fundy, Canada (Dr. Thierry Chopin on the right).
June 21, 2010

Thierry Chopin does world-class research on a university campus once targeted for demotion.

Mr. Chopin, a professor of marine biology at the University of New Brunswick's campus in the industrial port city of Saint John, is working to solve the great curse of ocean fish farming, a major industry in Atlantic Canada. Conventional salmon farms can overfertilize the ocean with fish excrement and uneaten food pellets, causing fish-killing blooms of algae. He thinks the problem can be solved by growing mussels and seaweeds at the same sites, to transform the wastes into marketable marine products.

"What we do is of both regional and international importance," he says. "And doing it here makes complete sense."

His research would have been imperiled had the Saint John campus been turned into a polytechnic—merged with a local community college and refocused as a vocational-training institution, with little or no role for research or graduate study. That's what a provincial commission recommended in late 2007, arguing that the province needed to consolidate institutions and systemically organize their missions to use resources wisely. Proponents of the plan backed off after street protests were held in the city.

Chopin's campus may have been spared, but a similar debate has been raging for the past 10 months across Canada, where the higher-education system is largely egalitarian and almost entirely public. The presidents of the country's five largest research institutions have argued that they should receive a greater proportion of any future increases in research funds, to ensure that Canada remains competitive in the global economy.

"Resources are finite, and we have to be smart in a small country about how we use them," says David Naylor, president of the University of Toronto, who is the most vocal of the so-called G5 presidents on these issues. "Canadians have trouble making hard choices that involve explicit differentiation of missions and mandates."

Faced with global competition, many countries have debated the merits of more tightly directing research money to public universities. To stay competitive on the world stage, the argument goes, finite government support should be focused in the places where it is likely to have the greatest effect.

Large, research-intensive universities would very likely take a bigger share of research funds and graduate students under such plans, while smaller institutions would focus more on undergraduate teaching. It's a sort of "free trade" approach to funding, with institutions encouraged to find and focus on their competitive advantages.

But what if your country is a large one, with considerable regional rivalries and lingering resentments between economic haves and have-nots? Do ambitions to promote s nation-state's global competitiveness trump regional desires to become competitive on the national and international stage?

From Have-Not to Have

Many in Atlantic Canada think not.

Isolated from the rest of English-speaking Canada, Canada's four easternmost provinces—Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick—have long been the country's poorest. With traditional industries like fishing and forest products in trouble, the Atlantic provinces have remained net receivers of federal aid, in the form of so-called "equalization" payments.

Getting from "have not" to "have" status is a top priority here, a goal repeatedly expressed by political leaders. New Brunswick's government looks to university-based researchers to help drive innovation and economic development in the province.

"With globalization, we don't want to abandon traditional industries, but to overlay technology and new ways of thinking and move up the value chain, so to speak," says Calvin Milbury, president of the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation, which provides matching grants and venture capital to applied research, including Mr. Chopin's. "We believe the model should stay as it is, and this is critical to the plan we've had for the past decade."

The G5's calls to further concentrate graduate programs and federal research funds at Canada's major research universities threatens to undermine the Atlantic provinces' goals. None of the five—McGill University and the Universities of Alberta, British Columbia, and Montreal, in addition to Toronto—are located in Atlantic Canada.

Nor, in fact, do any institutions in Atlantic Canada show up among the country's top 15 universities by research income. Nova Scotia's Dalhousie University ranked 16th in 2009, according to Research Infosource. Next is Memorial University of Newfoundland, at 22nd. The University of New Brunswick, which accounts for three-fourths of all research income in its province, is 25th.

"I don't understand what the problem is with the status quo," says H.E.A. (Eddy) Campbell, president of the University of New Brunswick. The vast majority of programs are peer reviewed, and most of the funds already go to the big five, he notes.

"I'm not asking for an unfair advantage or any form of 'equalization,'" he says. "I'm saying the programs we have must allow for access by everybody on an equal footing and are judged on the basis of excellence. And that's what we have now."

In many respects, that appears the case. Most support from Canada's national research councils is awarded competitively, with the bulk of the money going to the big five. The G5 have also dominated the awarding of federally endowed Canada Research Chairs. Although the country has no federal education ministry, experts note that applying for money from the research councils requires universities to develop strategic research plans to differentiate themselves from one another.

Despite weak provincial support, the University of New Brunswick has nearly tripled its research income, to $56-million, in recent years, one of the most rapid increases in the country, although it did start from a very low baseline.

The university is at the forefront of ocean-floor mapping (using sonar), the analysis of materials with MRI machines, and the creation of advanced wood composites. Those fields are of obvious relevance to the region's major industries in fishing, energy, and forest products.

"If this place has any future other than educating people to move out, then research and innovation are absolutely essential," says Gregory S. Kealey, the university's provost and vice president for research. "But if you accept the rhetoric of the G5, it pushes us from the playing field. You can only think of it as greed on the part of those institutions, as they already have the lion's share and are located in rich provinces which have significant [matching] programs that allow them to compete much better on the federal level."

'Not a Cash Grab'

Toronto's Mr. Naylor says what the G5 issued was "a call for clarity, not a cash grab."

Higher education and research have been underfinanced since deep federal cuts in the 1990s, he says. As resources are restored, he argues, the process should proceed in a way to "ensure more meritocracy in regards to the allocation of research dollars."

Most research dollars are awarded competitively, he adds, but indirect costs are reimbursed using what he calls a "grossly perverse" sliding formula that penalizes the most successful institutions. Research-intensive universities are forced to be undergraduate-intensive as well, a "mixture of missions in which nobody wins."

"There are many direct and indirect subsidies that flow across the country that act against the differentiation of missions and the pursuit of experts on the global level," Mr. Naylor warns. "The Canadian psyche has a certain propensity toward equalization by stealth, ... a tendency to level-down."

Thus far the G5 appears to be losing the public debate.

A spokesperson for Industry Canada, the government agency that administers research programs, says that the current approach "is serving us well" and that "the government has no plans to change the funding structure" for its university research grants.

When the G5 made its proposals, "I don't think there was anyone in the country who leapt to their defense," says James L. Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. The proposals, he adds, would certainly put at a disadvantage the G5's domestic competitors as well as Atlantic Canada.

"But the context of their remarks is serious underfunding," he says. "We have too small a pie, and it's such a desperate shortage that for them to do what they want, they do need more."

"I don't think you can overestimate the amount of damage that's been done by the G5 presidents," says Mr. Campbell, of New Brunswick. "It leaves the university sector speaking to politicians with a divided voice, and leads them to turn their attention to those who have their act together."

"If we're determined to have the provinces be healthy, wealthy, and prosperous, we need to grow the pot, so we don't have to enter into these divisive arguments," Mr. Campbell says. "We're determined not to be a have-not province forever."