Innovation, entrepreneurship and the role of universities

Following is the commentary AUNBT sent to the Telegraph-Journal earlier this week. It was published yesterday under the title “Innovation has a pricetag,” the third of such responses to Donald Savoie’s series of articles:

Innovation, entrepreneurship and the role of universities

In a series of articles in this newspaper (June 5-8), Université de Moncton professor Donald J. Savoie issued a challenge to all New Brunswickers to engage in a “critical debate … at a crucial time” and urged the media to facilitate public discussions on the future of our province. One concrete proposal made by Professor Savoie was that universities should “be more open to the local entrepreneurs and the local business community” in order to help address the current economic crisis. 

We agree. Indeed, throughout nearly two centuries of operation the University of New Brunswick has been innovative as well as responsive to the local business community. However, we would argue that the university also must continue to train highly qualified professionals to address provincial needs in education, nursing, engineering, law, the humanities, business, and the natural and social sciences. UNB graduates educate our young in the K-12 system, nurse on provincial hospital wards, build roads, bridges and public buildings, and assess environmental impacts. Our graduates do a great deal to stimulate the provincial economy every day. They graduate to succeed in the highly competitive global job market. Every dollar that the province spends on post-secondary education is paid back with interest.

UNB’s innovative role in local business is exemplified by the growth of academic and entrepreneurial engineering. Since the 1950s several engineering consulting firms have been established and then developed into global operations by UNB faculty and their students. Reflecting this growth, Fredericton became the largest per capita engineering cluster in Canada. Caris Geospatial Software Solutions, which employs 140 professionals in Fredericton, illustrates the diversity of UNB entrepreneurial activities. The company grew out of research in the Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering Department and now has offices in the Netherlands, the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, providing expertise in over 90 countries. The Institute of Biomedical Engineering is world renowned — not only for research and development in the field of artificial limbs, but also for manufacturing limb prostheses and for training graduate students from around the world.

Small and medium sized businesses in the province already benefit from UNB’s expertise. The Electronic Commerce Research and Training Centre at UNB Saint John has established the highly successful Small Business Internship Program, which started as a New Brunswick pilot program and became an Industry Canada sponsored initiative matching undergraduate and college students with small businesses across the country to adopt social media marketing. UNB Saint John biologists have developed multi-trophic aquaculture, which promises to address environmental challenges arising from salmon farming. Other researchers are working with lobster fishers to better understand lobster reproduction and distribution. Both social and natural scientists from UNB Fredericton are also working with fishers to improve the returns from fishing as well as sustainable coastal and ocean management.

Our Moncton colleague rightly emphasizes “the highly competitive nature of the global economy,” but his observation applies as much to university research and education as to other economic sectors. In this new global order, universities are essential sources and catalysts for innovation and change. In order to remain so, they must maintain a high standard for research and teaching, a standard which depends on the recruitment and retention of faculty with doctoral or postdoctoral training at the world’s leading universities. The role of the university as an economic innovator depends on public support for education. The university must also have the resources to dedicate its considerable teaching, research and administrative expertise to maintaining its international standing as a comprehensive university. International stature is a key factor in faculty recruitment and retention, as well as being crucial to morale.

We applaud Savoie’s recognition that the period of greatest economic prosperity in this province coincided with the time “when, pound for pound,” our public service “was the best in Canada” and we appreciate his call for “substantive public policy debates.” The 1960s and 1970s showed that policy debates are the most fruitful for the public interest when elected politicians have the support — as well as the restraint — of expert advice from civil servants with high levels of university training who are professional, disinterested, and respected by both the public and politicians.

Like UNB, other New Brunswick universities have created and amplified economic success in New Brunswick through spin-offs and collaboration with industry. We agree with Professor Savoie that this is an essential role that should continue. However, in order to make a significant difference in the province, our universities must retain a unique role in the economy, different from business or government. At universities:

    • courses of action are not driven by share-holder demands for short-term return on investment or by four year election cycles,
    • the currency is not money but clear thinking and ideas,
    • teaching leverages research success and research leverages effective teaching,
    • the boundaries of conventional wisdom are challenged,
    • ideas are created, shared, and debated, and
    • innovation is generated and nurtured.

Institutions of higher education exist for the public good, but they are arm’s-length from the public sector. They are distinguished from private research institutes or research and development facilities by the long-term scale of their mandate. Building and sustaining a lively environment for teaching and knowledge creation requires academic freedom, the acceptance of diverse views, and the decentralization of authority through collegial decision-making. The ultimate goal of higher education is to expose students to an environment where they can acquire the intellectual as well as the practical skills to transform and improve our world, including the economy. Well-supported universities are central to resolving not only the current provincial crisis, but future problems as well.  Promoting economic development cannot be coupled to cuts to provincial education. We cannot cut our way to economic development.

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Categories: Academic freedom, Austerity politics, Autonomy, Communication, Media, PSE funding