Looking back on 35 years

Looking back on 35 years McGill University

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McGill Reporter
March 7, 2002 - Volume 34 Number 12
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 34: 2001-2002 > March 7, 2002 > Looking back on 35 years

Looking back on 35 years

After 35 years of service to McGill -- as a professor, departmental chair, dean and vice-principal -- Vice-Principal (Research) Pierre Bélanger will be retiring from the University at the end of this month. In the following essay, Bélanger outlines some of the changes and challenges he sees McGill contending with in the research sphere.

Photo Vice-Principal (Research) Pierre Bélanger

It has been my job as Vice-Principal (Research) to oversee the development of research. In spite of sharp dips in the budgets of the federal granting councils, McGill researchers, on the whole, held their own.

Some faculties, including mine (engineering), registered drops, mostly due to the loss of some of their best researchers.

I have seen the dossiers of many of our new professors, as applicants to various programs, and the future looks very bright: I would say that all faculties have done an excellent job of recruiting. The recent reception for the McGill/Dawson chairholders was an occasion for rejoicing in the presence at McGill of so many talented people. For me, the occasion underlined what a special place McGill is.

During my past seven years as VP, we have witnessed a change in government funding programs, toward more targeted and group grants: CFI, VRQ, Initiative for the New Economy, Regroupements stratégiques -- the new programs appear at both levels of government.

The traditional environment of individual research is being eroded, and giving way to new paradigms. There are certain misconceptions as to what that means.

It does not mean that researchers must work together at the project level and always publish jointly; rather, it means that researchers must think in terms of research programs, rather than individual projects, and, specifically, in terms of coherent research themes for a centre or other group of researchers.

This does not spell the end of individual research, although it may entail a certain loss of autonomy due to the need for aligning one's research to a program.

Some will decry the change, but the group agenda creates a better environment for the training of graduate students, through improved course offerings and more interaction with other students as well as all professorial members of the research group. An important part of my own graduate training was precisely the interaction with my fellow graduate students, every day and in many informal ways.

Some, especially from the humanities and social sciences, will protest that this is just an ill-founded attempt to transfer the science model to other fields. Since I am an engineer, I cannot tell with certainty; but I have heard prominent members of the HSS community, including Marc Renaud and Paule Leduc (present and past presidents of SSHRC) defend this shift, and it is well under way in the other Quebec universities, in particular.

There has been modest growth in collaborative work with industry. I hear concerns expressed about private-sector involvement in university research, and its structuring effects (most of them assumed to be bad) on our research culture.

I think that the major structuring effect on our research culture has come not from the private sector, but from government, through such programs as the CFI, VRQ and the various partnership programs of the councils. Private-sector funding at McGill still amounts to no more than 15 percent, a lot less than government funds.

We would not want to have most of our funds from the private sector, but a mix is healthy: the world of applications, particularly for some disciplines, is often a source of interesting problems that can be addressed by university research.

That said, we must continue to uphold our basic values when we deal with the private sector, either in the form of contracts or matched partnership grants. That we have done consistently, even to the extent of occasionally losing a project because of our insistence on control over publications or intellectual property. Fortunately, there are plenty of companies that understand the university milieu and respect its values.

We have seen rapid developments in the commercialization of university research results, not only at McGill, but across North America. Governments have given universities a new mandate: in addition to training people and discovering new knowledge, we are now asked to accompany our results in the first few steps toward their commercial application.

Some see this as a threat, and fear a reorientation of our research away from knowledge discovery. I tend to believe that not much will change in the way we do research. Inventions are not made by someone who sets out to invent, but rather by someone who finds something new and manages to see in it the potential for application. It is a fact that more than 75 percent of references in life sciences patents in the U.S. are to publicly funded research, i.e., "free" research.

It is difficult to argue that, having discovered a possible AIDS vaccine, a researcher should not do what she can to bring it to application. Just publishing the result is no help: no one will invest the large sums needed for drug development unless they have exclusive use of the intellectual property. That is why intellectual property needs to be managed, and that is a good reason for having an Office of Technology Transfer (OTT).

At McGill, OTT has expanded significantly under my watch. We went from five to 12 professionals. We now have OTT personnel in some faculties and hospitals, to counsel researchers in situ. MSBI, our collaborative venture with Sherbrooke and Bishop's, was launched on February 19, and will give us a commercial instrument, operating at arm's length from the University, that should do an effective job of commercial development of our research findings -- and do it outside the University.

Let me now look back 35 years, to 1967, when I joined the staff. It was a heady time; all universities in North America were cashing in on the post-war wave of prosperity, and were hiring profusely. Although some parts of McGill, mostly medicine and science, had been in the research game for some years, it was a period of buildup of research in other faculties, mine included.

It was the beginning of the sustained effort in the development of McGill as a research university; McGill is now much stronger as a research institution than it was then. Our researchers are now much more competitive on a world basis.

But the world was easier for us than it is now for young professors. Getting research funding was easier. There was more time, and the University was a more congenial place. There is so much pressure now that there is no time to do anything but one's work. One of my colleagues remarked that all of us knew the spouses of everyone in our department; we socialized frequently, and knew each other on a personal basis.

I remember enjoying lunchtime conversations with colleagues from a wide variety of disciplines at the Faculty Club. Historian Bob Vogel regaled us in 1971 with the reasons why a rapprochement between the U.S. and China was inevitable. Throughout history, he explained, the first sea power has allied itself with the second land power against the first land power. He noted that, at the time, the first sea power was the United States, the first land power was the USSR and the second land power was China. A few months later, U.S. president Richard Nixon made his historic trip to Beijing.

It would be a shame if McGill's newest engineering professors didn't have the same opportunities to learn about world history that I enjoyed.

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