Monday, March 25, 2013

Research on the Brain of McGill's New Principal

There is a subdued debate shaping up around the appointment of Suzanne Fortier as McGill University's new Principal and Vice Chancellor. The appointment to the position follows the ten-year tenure of Heather Munroe-Blum, whose time McGill actively courted research monies from the private sector, while mounting tensions between the student body and the administration ended in open revolt on a number of occasions.

A well-established member of academia, Fortier comes to McGill from the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), where she is credited with courting--you guessed it!--research monies from the private sector for 'applied research'. Ivory towers, after all, don't fund themselves out of thin air. As federal funding dries up, new sources of revenue have to be secured in to maintain the relevance of universities in the knowledge-producing economy. The story goes that Fortier played a significant role in NSERC's strong push towards commercializing scientific research.

But education and commerce, it seems, don't mix very well. Thinking way back to my days in high school, I can remember student run campaigns to evict pop machines from hallways and cafeterias. The fight was played out again during my undergraduate degree. The soda manufacturers had to go...which raises questions about why they were there in the first place. Unscrupulous corporate interests? In a move perceived far less controversial, Microsoft funded a computer lab in my high school, whose nebulous purpose was to entice young people into the world of computer programming. A few of my friends followed that path to a career in the industry.

Schools have a difficult time turning away lump sums of corporate cash, which can be used to fill holes left after federal and provincial and other funds have all been spent. McGill is no different than any other school, in this regard, though more ties with the corporate world is bound to ruffle a few feathers along the way. The appointment of Fortier will probably raise the ire of the student body in a few years. If she was appointed for her experience raising and dispensing federal funding for scientific research, which would suggest that McGill wants to continue investing in scientific research, then student are going to see her policies through their lens of concern for the quality of education. I can't imagine her image will come through the process of student scrutineering very well.

Battle lines may be forming up on a second front. The Montreal Gazette published an article just last week airing the concerns of professor's and others working in the natural sciences. During her stay at NSERC, decisions implemented by Fortier saw funds move from 'basic research' projects to 'applied research' projects to the tune of $100s of millions. At stake in the minds of some of the parties involved is academic freedom and integrity. Basic research means research for the sake of doing research. Professors who have dedicated their lives to the study of the problems of this or that particular scientific field want the freedom to pursue their own interests. Applied research means research done for the sake of generating wealth and building up the economy. When a particular scientific study may be attractive to corporate interests, professors are encouraged to court outside investment in exchange for licensing and developing rights to the findings.

There are two very different visions of scientific research. Those in favour of academic freedom, who are therefore also more reliant on government funding, point to the history of scientific discovery. The greatest discoveries, they argue, always seem to happen when very intelligent people are allowed the freedom to explore. Albert Einstein is the post-child for this vision. Those in favour of 'cooperation' with the private sector, which means private funding, hold up the ideal of synergy across social sectors.

Brilliantly satrirized by Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock in his roll as the GE executive Jack Donaghy, synergy is one of those gobbledegook bullshit words coming out of the corporate training handbooks. (Much like, in fact, the word 'leveraging'.) It sounds good, and it even feels good, but it only means what people want it to mean. The synergy between academic and corporate interests to which Fortier's appointment harkens conjures up bad memories of a McGill study of long-term consequences of asbestos exposure in Quebec mines.

Now, I am in no position to pass judgment specifically on McGill's appointment of Fortier. Standing outside the natural sciences, squarely at the intellectual heart of arts faculties, though marginalized on the edge of the campus in a religious studies faculty, I can at best roll my eyes and decry the fact that nothing has changed to reverse the erosion of the study of the humanities. Which seems a little pointless.

Though I think I am allowed to wonder what, in the grand scheme of things, Fortier's appointment portends. The Government in Ottawa has deemed it important to encourage 'applied research', moving funding away from 'basic research'. The McGill administration seems in lock-step with their attempts to restructure how capital moves between public and private sectors. I have questions about whether such restructuring can engender a constructive learning environment for future generations. I also have questions about where my own intellectual passions fit in a new world order built on the so-called S(cience). T(echnology). E(ngineering). M(athematics). subjects. Nor am I so stupid as to buy into all that P.R. nonsense about how all change is automatically change for the better. Nor am I willing to swallow that tasteless pill about how sole purpose of representative government is to 'grow the economy', as if politics was just economics by another name.

I worry about the concentration of decision-making authority in the hands of persons with the most to gain financially and the least amounts of public accountability. The extension of the voting franchise in the Western world through the 19th and 20th centuries steadily eroded the ability of concentrated centers of wealth to simply dictate public policy. At the beginning of the 21st century, the economic base of our polities have fundamentally changed. It remains to be seen whether our representative political institutions will be able to adapt--or even what adapting might mean.

It seems to me, however, the form taken by our educational institutions is an important indicator of things to come. That's where the negotiation of the social transfer of priorities and values with future generations takes place.

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