BRIMM Autumn Newsletter; October 2021
Op-Ed by Director Dr. John Steen
Universities across the world are under growing pressure to do more with less. While COVID has left Canadian universities mostly in reasonable financial shape, other countries have not fared so well. In Australia, where I spent most of my academic career, the loss of faculty in response to post-COVID budget cuts has been estimated to be around 20%. Internationally, universities must prepare for leaner budgets. They will compete with health, social security and defence for a share of a shrinking public purse as governments try to repair national balance sheets. The pressure to demonstrate social and economic benefits to the public will increase. If the ‘ivory tower’ university era wasn’t over before COVID, it certainly is now.
Universities face many challenges in adapting to this new world. More funding will need to come from non-public sources, and working in closer partnership with organizations outside the university will become the norm. However, universities, industries and governments have different cultures and objectives, and productive collaboration can be hard to achieve.
An externally engaged university that collaborates with public and private sector organizations is far more able to effect positive change in the community. If we want industry and governments to meet sustainability targets, the best way to do this is through collaboration, not disconnection. We will achieve a lot more through co-developing solutions than shouting at each other and protesting.
Some people believe that universities should be separated from external influence and interests. However, the idea that industry engagement somehow devalues university research is not based on facts. There is a vast research literature on the economics of innovation that shows how universities contribute to regional and national innovation outcomes.
We know that industry and public sector organizations can benefit from the different ideas in universities, and the converse is also true. A Cambridge University study on how knowledge flows into and out of the university shows that there are many ways that productive connections occur beyond the university campus and that externally engaged scholars are often the best researchers.
In an excellent TED talk on the origins of breakthrough ideas, Steven Johnson describes the beginnings of GPS technology in the 1950s. A group of young professors had worked out how to track the Sputnik satellite from signal frequency shifts caused by the Doppler Effect. This was just a bit of laboratory fun until they showed another professor working with the US submarine program. His question was whether the location of a point on earth could be determined if the satellite’s location was known, and the rest is history. Breakthroughs often come when we connect experts who typically don’t talk to each other.
A BRIMM example of this is Professor Sue Baldwin’s discoveries about microbial processing of Selenium to treat water from mine sites. These discoveries happened because of Professor Baldwin’s long collaboration with Teck and finding new ways to treat Selenium effluent in the Elk Valley.
Considering more existential challenges like climate change, resource scarcity and environmental sustainability, we need to find solutions as fast as possible. The best way to do this is to get people from all kinds of organizations working together. The sooner we can break down barriers that separate government, industry, community organizations and universities, the better.