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Delving deeper: McGill’s research partnerships with corporations

Last November, a report by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) criticized McGill’s collaboration with Bombardier Inc., a publicly traded aerospace corporation, and eight other partners. The report warned that a lack of protections for academic freedom in collaborative research agreements between universities and industries could affect universities’ integrity. This week, the McGill Tribune takes an in-depth look at McGill’s relationship with the corporation.

The CAUT is an organization that represents 68,000 university teachers, researchers, and general staff throughout Canada. According to Paul Jones, CAUT research and education officer, agreements that do not protect universities’ interests could increase the commercialization of research.

“[Industries are] putting pressure on universities to crank out more commercializable products,” he said. “It means universities turn away from curiosity and vision-driven research [….] Universities can play, or should play, the unique role in society as independent protectors or purveyors of information for the public interest.”

McGill’s involvement with Bombardier comes from their membership in the Consortium for Research and Innovation in Aerospace in Quebec (CRIAQ), which is a collaborative organization of 14 universities, nine research centres, and 52 companies. The consortium was founded in 2002 as a non-profit organization with the goal of increasing competitiveness within the aerospace industry.

“[CRIAQ aims] to develop international collaborative research projects by partnering with Canadian, U.S., European and other programs,” the CRIAQ website reads.

Other members of CRIAQ include Concordia, Université de Sherbrooke, and companies such as GE Aviation and Bell Helicopter.

As of 2012, CRIAQ had enabled 142 research projects, which received $124 million in funding. According to CAUT’s report, 25 per cent of project funding is a grant from CRIAQ, 25 per cent is from corporate participants in the project, and 50 per cent is from the Natural Sciences Engineering and Research Council of Canada (NSERC), a federal agency.

Clement Fortin, president and CEO of CRIAQ, said project collaborations with industries give students a unique opportunity to gain practical experience working in the field.

“Collaborative research of this type allows students, researchers, and professors to get experience with the real thing, so the students can find better jobs, and it can be faster for them to enter the workforce,” he said. “Collaborative research also supports a greater number of research students.”

CRIAQ has supported 700 graduate students since its conception in 2012. The projects result in approximately 250 publications per year. In 2013, 253 graduate students were involved in CRIAQ projects.

In their report, CAUT specifically critiqued the collaborative agreement for CRIAQ’s PLM-2 project, which McGill manages with Bombardier Inc. The PLM-2 project is researching ways to improve information-sharing and information management for a product throughout its life-cycle.

“The agreement compromises the university’s institutional autonomy by allowing the industrial partner to compel the university to patent university-owned intellectual property,” the CAUT report read on the collaboration.

Jones said patents can have a negative effect on academic research.

“The point [of academic tradition] is to make the world a better place by developing new knowledge and insuring that it’s disseminated as widely as possible,” Jones said. “The problem is when there is pressure, either implicit or explicit, indirect or direct, for faculties to turn their knowledge into patents.”

McGill’s Associate Director of Research Contracts and Agreements Nathan Currier stressed that, for instances where research is patented, the university can still own the intellectual property.

“It’s infrequent that [McGill] develops something which belongs to us by the nature of the agreement, and we decide not to pursue it, so we give it to the [industry],” Currier said. “We can give [industries] the option to try and acquire the intellectual property we’ve developed if we’re not interested in using it [….] In our agreements, we insist that researchers and students will always have the right to utilize intellectual property for academic and research purposes.”

The report reviewed 12 collaborations between universities and industries throughout Canada. Seven out of the 12 agreements reviewed did not include specific protections for academic freedom; 10 out of the 12 agreements did not explicitly stipulate against university participants having a financial interest in the collaboration; and none of the agreements included a framework for the creation of a publicly accessible review of the collaboration.

The principles that the report outlined for improving the quality of the collaborative agreements included protecting academic freedom and institutional autonomy regarding teaching, research, hiring practices, and the publication of information; having protections against conflicts of interest; and encouraging transparency.

Jones added that increased public funding of universities by the provinces is key to protecting academic freedoms.

“I think that universities have to be refunded, that the cutbacks have to be ended and proper funding restored,” he said. “There has to be instead a focus on basic research—the kind of fundamental research that results in long term breakthroughs.”

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