Government Report on Research Commercialization Recommends Major Changes to Canadian University System

This month, the Expert Panel on the Commercialization of University Research reported its recommendations on research commercialization to the prime minister's Advisory Council on Science and Technology. And in a manner rarely seen in the world of academia or government, the report calls for changes that would amount to a complete overhaul of the research environment at Canadian universities.

The panel, composed primarily of industry representatives in Canadian science and technology appointed by the council, makes six specific and drastic recommendations for restructuring research with the intent of increasing "the return to Canada on the investment in university research made by Canadian taxpayers." The panel's 80-page report tries to link research commercialization to Canada's economic competitiveness, stating that "Canada's standard of living has been slipping relative to the United States and other countries over the last two decades ... many different measures will have to be taken to reverse this trend. This report is about one such measure."

The first of the panel's six recommendations would require an explicit commitment from all recipients of federal research funding to obtain the greatest possible benefit to Canada whenever the results of their federally funded research are used for commercial gain. Although this would initially appear to be a token commitment, the panel's proposal would enforce it by stopping the flow of funding to universities that did not adopt policies promoting the complete disclosure of intellectual property with commercial potential. (Only unpublished research, supported by federal funding, would be subject to the panel's recommendations.) The panel also recommended that commercialization of research be made one of the primary missions of the Canadian university.

Other recommendations included a 5% increase in university research that would be targeted for commercialization; better development of entrepreneurial and business skills in academic scientists; an increase in government investment in university research; and a wholesale review of Canadian tax policy to increase its promotion of research-based innovation.

The panel's report has stirred up a large controversy in academic circles. Academic boosters, such as Bill Graham, president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), are up in arms about the recommendations. "The report would jeopardize socially valuable research that may not be profitable, while encouraging research that makes money for the private sector but may be trivial," explains Graham, a faculty member at the University of Toronto.

In addition, "it would make the commercial exploitation of research by the private sector a fundamental mission of the university," adds Jim Turk, CAUT's executive director. "We cannot let our universities be turned into publicly subsidized laboratories for private businesses." Though the report specifically excludes research with the goal of "journal articles and scholarly books," CAUT feels the emphasis on commercialization is nevertheless perfectly clear.

Some scientific administrators, like Tom Brzustowski, president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), say that it's time these changes took place. Brzustowski, who participated in the expert panel, disagrees with CAUT's assessment. "At NSERC, we've got a very carefully documented evaluation of 107 start-ups that are based on university research. So it [the commercialization of university research] is going on, and it is of value. The object of the recommendations is to do more, in a more predictable way."

Brzustowski also thinks it is necessary to "to remove the severe cultural barriers within the university environment for people involved in this kind of work. [Many professors I have interacted with feel that] their careers would go down the tubes if they did [commercialized research]. And that's just wrong. The idea is that if universities acknowledge this kind of work, right in their mission, as 'value,' it might remove these barriers."

The panel's recommendations, which have not yet been approved by the prime minister's council, may have a long-term impact on the climate of research in Canada for years to come regardless of any immediate actions. By accelerating discussions on making private sector development one of the missions of academia, Turk speculates that this would give "corporate interests an even greater ability to interfere with university research."

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