Canadian universities strive for differentiation and elite (global) standing

YVRI’ve just returned from Vancouver (pictured to the right), and my visit included a pleasant day at the University of British Columbia (UBC), my BA and MA alma mater.  UBC is perched on the edge of Canada, and the Pacific Ocean.  While it has always been a strong university, it is now striving to become a “world class” university, it seeks to position itself high within the two main global rankings, and it is currently fashioning a more strategic and effective approach for “international engagement and global influence”.

UBC’s ambition is to create a one of the world’s leading research universities; one “producing discoveries and innovations that advance human understanding and that make our world a better place” while acting as a “magnet for talent, helping to retain our most gifted students here in BC, and attracting bright and ambitious young people from across Canada and around the world”, while also functioning as a “connector — linking new ideas and best practices into our local communities, and bridging Vancouver and the Okanagan to global networks of innovation” (in the 2008 words of Stephen Toope, UBC’s President).

But how does one West Coast university, embedded in a provincially governed higher education system (national research funding, nonwithstanding), ramp up its game?  In the Canadian context, it comes down to convincing the state to enable universities to become more innovative, more competitive, yet while always receiving significant levels of state support, especially financial largesse.  Unlike the UK case (see ‘Privatise elite universities, says top VC‘, The Guardian, 1 June 2009), Canadian universities like UBC are seeking more state support, though in this case via an enhanced national presence in higher education.

Yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education captured this sentiment with considerable insight.  The article (‘Canada’s Elite Universities Propose a National Strategy for Higher Education‘, 17 August 2009) put it this way:

Canadians have long held an egalitarian view toward their universities, generally agreeing that none should be treated as more special than any other.

But now the presidents of five of the country’s largest research institutions—the Universities of Alberta, British Columbia, Montreal, and Toronto, and McGill University—are banding together to suggest that perhaps some Canadian universities should be, to use a famous phrase, more equal than others.

Canada needs not only to improve its higher-education system as a whole, they say, but also to pay special attention to institutions like theirs. Their argument, essentially, is that if the country hopes to raise the international standing of its universities, then their group must be allowed to focus on graduate education and high-quality research.

“The Canadian way has been to open the peanut-butter jar and spread thinly and evenly,” says David Naylor, president of the University of Toronto, the largest institution in Canada.

“We’re not talking about having a system of first- and second-class schools,” he adds. “We need more liberal-arts universities, we need more polytechnics, and, of course, smaller universities will continue to do the research they’re doing.”

The idea, he says, is to develop a focused strategy that plays to each university’s strengths: what the five call a “differentiation” model for higher education—a model, they say, that would be adequately financed as well. (my emphasis)

The Chronicle article is well worth a read, and it matches the tenor of speeches given by many of these “elite” university leaders over the last several years.  Yet, despite my UBC roots, I can’t but help flag a few noteworthy challenges.

YVR2First, is differentiation best scaled at the university (institutional) scale?  What is the logic for excluding or devalorizing the disciplinary/field scale, or the city-region scale, or the research network scale?  Universities like Waterloo, for example, have some units with considerably more research capacity than in any of the five self-identified elite universities. In short, more effort needs to be made to demonstrate that the university scale is the right scale for differentiation, assuming you believe this is indeed an objective worth supporting.

Second, and I speak here as an advocate of statecraft, is it realistic to expect a national Canadian higher education strategy to truly emerge.  There are multiple ironies (like Alberta – Canada’s Texas or Montana – advocating a stronger federal role in any sector!), and some blinkered thinking going on.  Look at the challenges of crafting a national higher education brand (‘Canada’s new branding effort: “Education in/au Canada”’, GlobalHigherEd, 3 October 2008).  In my biased view the aesthetically challenged branding effort expresses the problems of achieving action on a national scale in Canada in some sectors. Might not more effort be focused upon engendering new forms of provincial and local scale statecraft; statecraft associated with genuine innovations in policy-making, program development, and project framing/implementation? One could argue that the City of Edmonton, or the Province of Alberta, could do more for the University of Alberta than could Ottawa, for example.

Finally, what are the pros and cons of encouraging more dependence upon the national government?  Besides Madison in the USA, I’ve also been based in Singapore, France and the UK, and dependence upon a national government is a double-edged sword.  University missions would have to increasingly reflect national priorities, and university leaders (not to mention faculty) would have to accept reduced power, less autonomy, more hierarchy, all the while coping with temporal shifts in priorities come national electoral cycles.  Yet, as the Chronicle notes:

More broadly, the five are calling for a national higher-education strategy. While they have shied away from asking for the creation of an education ministry, they argue that without federal coordination of resources, along with a clear vision for the future of Canadian universities, the system will fail to raise its stature internationally.

Given what I know about my motherland, and what I have experienced in much stronger national systems, I seriously doubt that Canadian universities would be willing to accept what comes with greater “federal coordination of resources” and a “clear vision”.  I don’t doubt that university leaders like UBC’s Stephen Toope, or Alberta’s Indira Samarasekera have legitimate claims (and gripes), but they should be cautious regarding what they seek: their objectives might come to light, and enhanced dependence mixed with unhappiness with the direction of the national vision is not an ideal outcome. And what national government is going to craft a strategy, and hand over more monies, without a greater role in governing universities? This is a Pandora’s box if there ever was one.

This is a debate worth watching as all universities – including those in Canada – seek new ways to achieve and legitimize their increasingly “global” objectives. Canada’s elites seek more state action (and defacto dependence) while some of their equivalents in the UK seek to privatize to reduce dependence on the state, and all with the same end objective (elite global standing) in mind!

Kris Olds

Cultivating scientific creativity in the city: what role for science festivals?

Editor’s note: many cities, regions and countries aspire to become ‘centers of excellence’ in science and technology for economic prosperity. Scientists strive to make breakthroughs and businesspeople seek to bring them into the marketplace. However, members of the public often have a hard time comprehending the associated scientific jargon, or merely recognizing what is going on behind the walls where scientists conduct their research.

In order to solve the problem associated with ‘science literacy’, some city-regions are now attempting to bridge between the science community and the general public by designing outreach programs. One of the most well known of such bridge programs is the Cambridge Science Festival (partly captured in the photo by Kris Olds to the right) in the US state of Massachusetts.

The Greater Toronto Area (GTA), Canada’s “powerhouse of research and innovation“, held its first science festival, titled Science Rendezvous, on May 10, 2008. This entry is designed to convey some features of the event, and is written from the perspective of a South Korean PhD student (Jae-Youl Lee), based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, though kindly hosted for six months by the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Studies (with field work helpfully supported via the Government of Canada’s Canadian Studies program). Jae-Youl’s report, which is based upon a day’s worth of field notes, pays particular attention to the ways through which Science Rendezvous, as a cultural event, helps people understand the current whereabouts of science in the City of Toronto.

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Science Rendezvous: Toronto’s New Science Festival

Hosting an annual science festival is becoming increasingly popular around the world – see, for example, the Edinburgh International Science Festival (Scotland), the Australian Science Festival, Pittsburgh’s SciTech Spectacular (United States), and two Cambridge Science Festivals (one in England and the other in the Boston area). While some festivals have existed for more than a decade (e.g., Edinburgh, Australia, and Cambridge in England), others were recently launched (e.g., Cambridge in the US). Most of the science festivals are organized by a consortium of various levels of government, universities and research institutions, but some such as Australian Science Festival are led by private entities which collect fees. In any case, science festivals are usually composed of public lectures and demonstrations, panel discussions, guided tours, exhibitions, hand-on experiments, etc.

Before launching a science festival, learning from existing events is a common practice. For example, the pioneers of Australia Science Festival were inspired by its Scottish counterpart in the late 1980s (for details, see here). Similarly, Dr. Dwayne Miller, professor of chemistry and physics at University of Toronto (UT), proposed Science Rendezvous after he experienced Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften in Berlin (Germany) three years ago. Dr. Miller told the Globe and Mail (April 26. 2008), a media partner to the Rendezvous, that “I was amazed to see the way in which the locals were getting into [science]”. The experience led him to organize Toronto’s science festival in partnership with not only UT’s collaborators, but also the university’s main local competitors (Ryerson University and York University). On the day of Science Rendezvous, citizens of all ages were invited to a dozen locations (including universities, research institutions, hospitals, shopping malls and even pubs) throughout the metropolitan area.

Science Rendezvous in Discovery District

The City of Toronto officially designated a downtown area bounded by Bloor Street, Bay Street, Dundas Street West, and Spadina Avenue as Toronto’s Discovery District in June 2002 (see this map). Biomedical and related sciences were chosen as the District’s strategic sector, and the City has implemented supporting policies in cooperation with provincial and federal governments, business communities, universities, and research institutions. The key project is the building of MaRS Centre, with Phase I of MaRS opened in September 2005.

As a part of Science Rendezvous, a select number of biomedical research labs at the MaRS Centre were accessible to the public in guided tours. Dr. William Wei briefly introduced the main function of MaRS in the beginning of a tour, in which he showed the use of 3-D display technology in new drug development. In a nutshell, the MaRS Centre was built to overcome a widely known problem in the biomedical industry: it normally takes for twelve to fifteen years to complete all the phases of preclinical and clinical tests to get a drug approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but a pharmaceutical patent expires in twenty years (for details, also read Profile 2008: Pharmaceutical Industry compiled by PhRMA, or Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America). In other words, the owner of a pharmaceutical patent enjoys its commercial benefit for only five to eight years before generic drug makers can use it for free. The Centre’s key concept of ‘convergence’, in which biomedical scientists, businesspeople, investors, and legal services providers locate together, is believed to shorten the time of drug approval so that MaRS tenants can get commercial benefits for a longer period.

The tours at MaRS Centre generated an additional dimension of convergence – they sought to be one with the public. Diverse visitors endeavored to achieve their own goals in the tours. For example, people in my tour group included parents with kids, a science journalist considering his new office in the Discovery District, a doctoral student in biomedical science from University of Waterloo in search of her future career, an accountant accompanied by his wife who works for Ontario government, etc.

The tour provided great opportunities for socializing as well as learning. Not only were a couple of kids in white medical lab coats happy at seeing cells through a microscope at Dr. Li Zhang’s cellar biology laboratory, but adult people were also enthusiastic. To some participants, the tours provided a venue for doing job-related activities. For example, a female employee working for corporate relations division at UT Scarborough was busying exchanging business cards with MaRS people at every presentation. It was her role to help undergraduate students at the school get hired at this state-of-the-art facility.

Right across the University Avenue, Mount Sinai Hospital also prepared programs for visitors (see this map again). Like MaRS, the Hospital had guided tours to upper-floor research labs, where the DNA of non-human organisms such as fruit flies was researched to advance our knowledge about cancer. Unlike MaRS, the Hospital opened booths for volunteers’ demonstrations and visitors’ hands-on experiments. At the booths, visitors learned how to extract DNA from a banana, tested their own knowledge about genetics, watched forensics demonstrations, etc.

Café Scientifique

Besides places of seeing and doing science, Science Rendezvous also offered places of talking about science. The Café Scientifique at The Rivoli, a pub in Queens West area, was such a place. The Café was not a special event prepared for the Rendezvous. Instead, the Café have been a monthly event in Toronto. Ontario Science Centre organizes the regular meeting. Begun in Leeds (United Kingdom) in 1998, the Café Scientifique is spreading around the world (link here if you want to find one near you, and here for Canadian offerings). At any Café Scientifique, all the participants are encouraged to discuss current issues related to science and technology over coffee, beer, or wine. As the organizer of Toronto’s Café Scientifique emphasizes, “it’s not a lecture! It’s a place for group discussion and audience involvement is the most important ingredient”. However, the Café usually begins with expert presentations.

Following the conventional procedure of holding a Café Scientifique, four panel debaters were invited to present their opinions on the topic of the day. The issue was the relationship between science and media. All the experts showed concerns over misleading and selective media reports about scientific discoveries. In particular, they pointed out, the media exaggerates the commercial benefit of science discoveries such as stem-cell research, pays far more attention to reporting ‘new’ discovery than helping people get out of science illiteracy, and neglects reporting perspectives different from (or, opposed to) the dominant view. For example, Shelly Ungar, sociology professor at University of Toronto Mississauga, pointed out the ‘silencing’ of politically and socially unacceptable scientific findings such as one that found out ‘passive smoking may not kill’. Similarly commenting on the view on climate change, Stephen Strauss argued, the fundamentally different methodology between science and media (i.e. experimental modeling vs. narrative style) is the main reason for the distortion and selectiveness common in the media report. When the expert presentations were all finished, the moderator of the Café encouraged the audience to participate in small group discussions about the issue.

TO Live with Science Culture

Toronto’s Mayor David Miller proclaims in the Agenda for Prosperity (p.2) that “we must put creativity at the heart of Toronto’s economic development strategy.” The Agenda’s supporting document Creative City Planning Framework (p.24) spells out two ways through which creativity can drive the City’s economy. The first is to develop an array of specific sectors such as cultural industries (for details, see Imagine a Toronto) and high-tech industries. The second is to normalize creativity as an everyday practice among citizens. In other words, encouraging citizens to behave more creatively is also believed to drive the City’s economy.

At Science Rendezvous, activities associated with the sciences were mobilized as a medium to cultivate creativity and awareness amongst Torontorians. As I described above, they were seeing, doing, listening to, and talking about, sciences throughout the City. As Dr. Ron Pearlman, biologist at York University put it, they wanted to make the Rendezvous “more of a cultural activity” (Globe and Mail, April 26, 2008) such that experiencing and enjoying sciences as such became part of the cultural life of the City.

It remains to be seen whether a more creative culture generates economic value and to what extent the benefits spread over the society. Nevertheless, in my observations, Science Rendezvous seemed to help people understand the current whereabouts of the sciences, which will surely affect their lives in the future. Visitors to the places where I moved through during Science Rendezvous certainly have their own answers to questions such as why the MaRS Centre is necessary, what scientists at the Centre do, how studying fruit flies helps in the treatment cancers, and why people should be cautious while reading media reports about the sciences.

Jae-Youl Lee