Report opposed by academics

April 14, 2000

A group of 1,400 Canadian academics have put their name to a letter that urges prime minister Jean Chretien to reject a report on university commercialisation.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers wrote the letter after finding the follow-up consultation to the "report of the expert panel on the commercialisation of university research" ignored grass-roots opposition to its recommendations, including that of linking commercially beneficial research to promotion and tenure.

The report, which came out last summer and was recently sent to cabinet, also recommends that universities establish commercialisation as a fourth pillar in their mission, after research, teaching, and community service.

One of the report's co-authors,Tom Brzustowski, president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, met with universities across the country in the autumn to gauge their response. His report says the industry minister will seek the support of the federal cabinet for a strategy to accelerate the rate of research-based innovation coming out of Canadian universities.

CAUT spokesman Jim Turk said someone outside the panel should have conducted the consultation. He took issue with the ideology of the report, which wanted to see increased returns from the public investment in university research.

This would put pressure on areas of studies that would have a hard time finding a commercial partner.

Mr Turk said the message should be that good science allows a scientist to follow a line of inquiry they think is important. He pointed to examples of innovative work that came out of peer- reviewed basic science, including the discovery of lasers, the recent findings that link bacteria growth to ulcers and the spin-off anti- rejection drug, developed after one scientist was curious about why scared frogs ate their young.

The CAUT, which represents 25,000 professors, had put a call out to universities, with a one-week deadline for signatories to the letter. The response far exceeded their expectations. The message, which included signatures from Nobel laureate John Polanyi, environmentalist David Suzuki and several researchers involved in commercially viable applied sciences, said the experts' report lacked a balanced investigation in studying universities' commercial potential.

The nine-member panel that put out the report comprised mainly high-tech corporate executives and three academics, all with ties to technology transfer.

The CAUT letter aimed to address this imbalance. The panel believes an examination of university science and its relation to commercialisation is overdue, but this must include the participation of a diversity of university researchers, voices missing on the original panel.

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