Universities Being Useful

We should seek greater benefits from researchers in our universities.

Most faculty members are expected to spend as much time doing research as they do teaching. Students view their tuitions as paying for teaching, but the two parts are not easily separable. The province provides $350 million to the universities each year and the students another $285 million in tuition fees. More space is devoted to teaching than research, and some non-tenured faculty are not expected to do research. So perhaps $300 million of the $635 million total pays for the time that faculty spend doing research, with the rest going to pay for faculty teaching time.

As researchers, they contribute knowledge to a remarkably diverse range of topics. Some touch specifically on Nova Scotia such as fisheries, local history and culture, or provincial geology and resource management. Other research in areas such as health care, materials science, or commerce can be of value to Nova Scotians but may be equally relevant to others in Canada or the world. Finally, there are research areas for which the practical utility in any context is not easily discerned.

It is good to hear of cases which have an obvious provincial significance. In a September 11 opinion article, Dr. Sarah Stewart-Clark described Dalhousie’s efforts with respect to aquaculture. She said in part:

“In order to expand in a sustainable way forward, I see education and innovation as pivotal components of a strong, sustainable aquaculture industry in Nova Scotia.

Education, extended learning, research and scientific development must be key components of the future of aquaculture in Nova Scotia. As the industry moves forward, so must the capacity for research so that industry challenges and environmental challenges can be assessed and mitigated using science-based information.”

Our community is fortunate to have a strong collection of ocean scientists. They are essential to many economic opportunities. Without them, companies like Ocean Nutrition or Acadian Seaplants could not exist. So the notion of ocean scientists exploring ways to manage environmental risks, boost productivity, and develop new business opportunities in aquaculture should be most welcome.

It is regrettable that the province makes no distinction in its university funding formulas, which are primarily based on student numbers. So, professors of foreign languages, medieval history, or Boolean algebra are funded to the same degree as those whose teaching and research area has a clearer local relevance such as ocean sciences, environmental law, or Nova Scotian  geology.

It would be better if there was a tilt in favour of  research that is especially valuable to Nova Scotia. The objective is not to reduce research funding, nor to eliminate support for other areas. But universities should contribute critical thinking to important political choices.

For example, the province has commissioned a panel to “develop a regulatory framework for aquaculture that best serves the long-term social, environmental and economic interests of the province.”

There are legitimate areas of concern, particularly for coastal salmon aquaculture, including impact on lobster fisheries and wild salmon populations. Regulations need to be developed that minimize these risks while recognizing the economic importance to rural Nova Scotia.

Academics at Nova Scotian universities will have important contributions to make to this kind of discussion. How might policy make that more likely?

Let’s assume that the $300 million guess for the provincial contribution to research is correct. First, take $270 million of it and share it around in the usual manner.

Take the other $30 million and direct it to areas of special benefit to Nova Scotia. They might include areas like apples, mink, lobsters, aquaculture, silviculture, oil and gas, wind and tidal power. Or, the economic and social consequences of improved roads and other modes of transport, mining practices that are safer for workers and the environment, new approaches to rural health care.

The particulars of making this work should be managed by an academically aware group working at arm’s length from government.

We are very fortunate to have so many universities in our province. As well as educating young minds, they can make crucial contributions to our economic and social development. Government should give emphasis to that kind of research.

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