That was Michael Hartmer, director of the German Association of University Professors, commenting to Der Spiegel on the latest “textbook example of how not to manage the relationship between private industry and the academy”. A far cry from what was described to me by a “wheeling and dealing German mathematical entrepreneur”, back in 2007, as a major “coup” for German mathematics. Indeed, what had started as a $17 million contribution from the Deutsche bank to Humboldt University to finance the application of advanced mathematical techniques to the world of finance, ended up with demands from the bank for the right to hire professors, to designate bank employees as adjunct faculty, to allow them to grade student work, to decide research topics and strategy, and even to disallow the publication of papers for as long as two years.
The story, which can be read in yesterday’s NY Times, is raising eyebrows in various European academic circles, and it should do so in Canada. Indeed, the rhetoric on the necessity for re-aligning more closely our scientific research with industry, is reaching a high pitch in this country. Led by NSERC’s current leadership, this movement is actively attempting to shift the paradigm of scientific research in Canada. How is it being done? By trying to change irreversibly the mandate of NSERC –transforming it into an outsourcing service for industry, with questionable peer review, and with subsidies to boot. Not to forget, the accompanying public statements regarding the intellectual superiority of those “researchers (with) a higher incidence of working with industry”.
Let’s be clear. No one is questioning the importance and necessity of having academic researchers aim for directly applicable research, seek commercial benefits, and look for partnerships and funding to help with this process. There should be government programs for this type of activities, and there are plenty of them!
What is becoming more and more questionable is NSERC’s new emphasis on designing and funding a multitude of new programs that explicitly call for bringing the market to the bench, as opposed to taking research from the bench to the market.
More and more, we find NSERC –the sole government agency that is mandated to support basic university scientific research– trying to redirect funding and use cash incentives to lure academic researchers into addressing a “company-specific problem” for the express benefit of an industrial partner. That’s right: NSERC will subsidize companies to effectively hire academics to do their work. Our academics, instead of dedicating themselves to fundamental, peer-reviewed research, can be branch plants for industry. And furthermore, NSERC will pay for it!
The lessons from the Deutsche bank episode are not to be ignored! And we haven’t yet scratched the surface of the ethical implications, from intellectual property rights, to secrecy agreements, to contracts that allow corporate sponsors to control what happens in university labs and classrooms, to the independence of science in general.
And a great welcome to the 3000+ applied mathematicians who are now in Vancouver for the International Congress for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (ICIAM 2011). Mprime (formerly MITACS) is proud to be a principal organiser/sponsor/convenor of such a historic event.