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Scientist looking into microscope. (iStockphoto)
Scientist looking into microscope. (iStockphoto)

Brock's president: All universities need to do research Add to ...

In recent months the leaders of five large Canadian universities, seeking to revive a public debate about how tax dollars should be spent on research, resumed their lobby for the federal government to concentrate research spending at their schools. The implication was that research money would be diverted away from other universities.

They argued that only these few institutions in Canada have the potential to be world-class centres of research and graduate education; all they need is more money. The rest of the country's universities would be largely undergraduate institutions with some limited graduate education and research.

This policy would be so completely wrong headed that it would be dangerous for Canada. History has already taught us the painful lesson of what happens when students have their potential restricted by discriminatory or exclusionary approaches to research opportunities.

We are in an era when Canada requires not only many more people to have university educations in order to maintain our national competitiveness, but exponentially more people with post-graduate degrees, especially as countries such as China and India ramp up their capacity to deliver Bachelors-level education to their citizenry.

This is universally recognized by all OECD countries, Canada among them.

Canada needs all of its universities to contribute to post-graduate education. Four or five, even 10 or 13 institutions, could not possibly produce the numbers without becoming mass-education, graduate student factories - precisely the wrong model for post-graduate education.

We would be turning back the clock more than 50 years, when only a limited number of Canadian universities offered graduate programs in a wide array of fields. At that time, many of Canada's best undergraduates went elsewhere for post-graduate education, and many did not return.

In recent years Canadian universities have hired hundreds of young, gifted academics. It is heartening to see the quality of these young faculty members, and their potential to have not only stunning teaching careers but also significant research careers at the cutting edge of their disciplines.

These faculty have a reasonable expectation that their careers will be well served at more than just a handful of Canada's universities, and they ought to be able to have confidence that good research work and good research proposals will win grants in open, peer-review competitions, notwithstanding their home university. To restructure the system otherwise is to tell them to leave Canada, since they cannot all migrate to the handful of universities that put themselves forward as candidates for preferential funding and research support. What a loss to Canada. And what a loss to teaching at the undergraduate level, as well as at the graduate level. For all teaching greatly benefits from a research environment.

At Brock University in the Niagara area of southern Ontario, many of our research and graduate programs are drivers of the economic, social and cultural development of our host region. In this respect, Brock is pivotal to addressing the economic challenges of our region, once one of the most heavily industrialized in Canada and now facing all of the challenges associated with the globalization of manufacturing.

To play this role, Brock's researchers and institutes in many disciplines increasingly partner with local agencies, local government and local industry to define research programs, to conduct research and to disseminate the results - not only to the international scholarly community but to local stakeholders, in a form that directly addresses local developmental challenges.

A handful of "Tier 1" institutions could, and would, never play this partnership role for the plethora of Canada's regions. Yet playing this role in itself drives research excellence and enriches graduate programs and graduate students.

The current funding model, especially for research and related activities, already ensures that Canada's research powerhouses get more resources: more chairs; more indirect-cost grants; the lion's share of federal grants. That is appropriate - they have earned it. But they should continue to have to earn it, just as everyone else should earn what they receive. That is the true driver of quality and excellence, not a priori entitlements.

After all, institutions do not do research. Researchers and their teams do research. And therefore governments ought to fund the work of these individuals and teams - wherever the quality warrants it.

Focusing on a few institutions as loci of top-flight research and graduate studies - and relegating other universities to the status of largely undergraduate schools - would be a great step backward.

It would leave much of our intellectual capital underdeveloped, would incite an exodus of first-rate minds to campuses south of the border, and would leave many Canadian communities without the necessary drivers of their economic, social and cultural development in an age of global competitiveness -effectively relegating these communities to "Tier 2" status.

This would be a national disaster. Canada needs more researchers, not fewer. And, therefore, Canada needs more of its universities increasingly engaged in research and graduate studies.

Jack Lightstone is President and Vice-Chancellor of Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.

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