Volume 95, Issue 42

Thursday, November 15, 2001
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Corporate funding: the good, the bad and the ugly

Up close and personal with Western's corporate side

Corporate funding: the good, the bad and the ugly

By Chris Lackner and Lindsay Satterthwaite
Gazette Staff

Despite a number of high profile cases in universities across Canada, corporate sponsorship of academic research is still an issue relatively unnoticed by the general public.

Still, as university budgets become increasingly strained, corporate-sponsored research may become even more prevalent, drastically altering the way universities operate. The current debate centres around whether those changes could be beneficial, detrimental or minimal.


The university angle

Rebecca Coulter, associate dean of education at Western, said there are fundamental problems with corporate funding at universities. "It privileges business against all elements of society and gives corporations a privileged status inside a university," she said.

Coulter said the influence of the private sector is restructuring the way universities operate. Universities are starting to look more like businesses and students more like consumers, she said.

Dave Van Dyck/Gazette

TO FUND OR NOT TO FUND - THAT IS THE QUESTION. Corporate funding for research has raised numerous ethical questions on university campuses across Canada.

Corporate funding for university research immediately triggers numerous ethical questions, Coulter explained. The possibility that financial ties may influence the outcome of research studies is a question that has largely been ignored, she said.

In addition, researchers are pressured to pursue projects where the funding is available, not where the research is socially or scientifically important, she explained.

Allan Weedon, Western's acting VP-research, disagreed with Coulter, noting corporate funding allows the university to conduct research that would otherwise be impossible. "Private companies can go to any university, but we try to attract them because it benefits our faculty and our students," Weedon said.

There are many current research projects involving corporate sponsorship and the university plans to seek out more, he said. "[We look] for wherever we can find the support, as long as it is appropriate support," Weedon said.

Weedon explained all funding agreements must be in accord with ethical standards and proper policies. "It must always be possible for our faculty to publish the research for the general public," he said.

"One has to make sure the profit motive does not get in the way of the conduct of research and the probability to publish results," he said.

The government angle

Suzanne Corbeil, managing director of external relations for the federal government's Canadian Foundation of Innovation, said CFI invests in research projects at Canadian institutions.

"[CFI] invests 40 per cent of the money for an approved research project," she said. The other 40 per cent of the research money often comes from provincial funding and the final 20 per cent often comes from the private sector, Corbeil explained.

An institution submits an application for funding to the CFI with specific research in mind, Corbeil said. "The CFI will invest money if the research is consistent with the institution's priorities," she said.

"[CFI] supports the private sector because they help fund a lot of research," she said. Corbeil said since the corporate contribution towards research is so small, corporate motives do not factor into the decision-making process when choosing which studies to support.

Kevin Goldthorp, director of development at Western, said the CFI helps protect the university from changes in governmental funding, without directing the type of research conducted.

"There is no contract," he said. "[It involves] us approaching them. Researchers are the ones driving the research data, not the private sector," Goldthorp said.

Goldthorp said he supports corporate funding at Western. "It clearly allows us to build the capacity that otherwise couldn't be funded in our general operating budget," he said.

Tanya Cholakov, spokeswoman for the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, said it is up to each university and college's board of governors to decide where research funding comes from and to ensure its integrity.

She said the provincial government views research as essential to innovation and job development within Ontario and denied accusations of government cuts to research funding.

The province has undertaken numerous research initiatives, she explained, including $10 million provided over the next six years through the Premier's Platinum Awards, $485 million over 10 years to the Premier's Research Excellence Awards and $550 million over 10 years towards the Ontario Research and Development Challenge Fund.

"The numbers speak for themselves," Cholakov said.

The corporate angle

Joe Brennan, president of CVD Diamonds, said his company funds contract research at Western. "The research involved is mostly testing our tools and helping to develop them further," he said.

According to Brennan, the company diamond-coat tools to strengthen them for industrial uses.

He explained CVD Diamonds approached Western because the company possessed the necessary capabilities and technology. "There were specific areas of research to work in because [CVD] wanted to satisfy particular needs," he said.

Steve Feng, an associate professor of mechanical and material engineering at Western, led research projects for CVD Diamonds. He said CVD funds the research 100 per cent and, as a result, their expectations are clearly spelled out.

"When we sign the contract with the company, the risk is evaluated and we [convey to] the company what we think we can deliver," he said.

Bob Chant, the director of public relations for Labatt Brewing Company, said scientific research is of a high importance to Labatt's, noting the company values the relationship they have with universities, such as Western.

Chant said Labatt's provided an unconditional grant to research conducted at Western last year, which investigated the health benefits of anti-oxidant properties in beer.

"It's the responsibility of companies like ourselves to support research initiatives," he said. "We provide [research] grants when we see a value in the learning which might take place."

The downsides

Jesse Greener, VP-external for Western's Society of Graduate Students, said corporate funding allows the government to pull away from what many people consider their responsibility within the education sector.

"My biggest concern is that the whole definition of university being there to provide a service for the public is underminded. The public are not the people benefiting from the research," he said.

Greener said interest-based research, which has always spurred the most technological advances, is at risk of being lost to projects that are paid for through the private sector.

Nedege Adam, a bio-technology campaigner for the Council of Canadians – a non-governmental organization concerned with issues of social justice in Canadian society – said it is hard to blame universities for the increasing corporate presence on campuses.

"[Universities] have to function," she said. "It's hard to blame the universities and tell them not to take the money. Governments put these universities in this position."

She said many professors who conduct research under corporate grants feel intimidated and bullied to produce certain results or hurry the research process. "Many have talked to me about intimidation," she said. "Profit is the sole purpose of [corporate research], not a better society."

–with files from Nadia Daniell and Deirdre Healey

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Copyright The Gazette 2001