Scholarly freedom and the future of our universities

Scholarly freedom and the future of our universities

November 1, 2004

Scientific exploration is a noble activity and a necessary one, since understanding lies at the root of all we do. It would be folly to neglect the systematic pursuit of new knowledge to which the universities, as communities of learners, have traditionally been committed.

It used to be recommended that we refer to university research as "curiosity-oriented". This was a trap, since the cognate term to "curiosity" is "idle". Why, it was being hinted through this description, should the long-suffering taxpayer do more than the minimum to indulge the idle curiosity of university researchers?

In truth, of course, these researchers are not guided by curiosity. They have not spent their professional lives idly turning over stones to see what is crawling underneath. The decision as to what to investigate, far from being casual, is the most fateful they make. To obtain an answer of note, one must ask a question of note; a question that is exquisitely phrased. It must be one that matters, on a topic that is new, to which an answer can be found. So, yes, we do turn over stones, but the art is to pick the right stone.

If our research is not driven by curiosity, what is its motive force? My suggestion, over the decades, has been the obvious one: It is discovery-driven. Discovery is, after all, a burning human impulse from the dawn of consciousness till life's end.

Research and development, referred to as "R & D", is usually said in one breath. It should not be. One cannot D what one has not R'd. In industry, in order to be competitive, one may on occasion attempt to tinker one's way to a better antibiotic or nuclear reactor. But that is not the route we expect of academe. The advances in technology that stem from university research have their origin in new understanding. That is why they can be substantial advances.

When we tie discovery research too closely to development, we force our university scientists to run while hobbled in a three-legged race, one leg tied too nearly to industry. This is a mistake we are now making. Government continues to bind the universities more closely to industry, as if those links could never be too close.

The links are often accomplished through a requirement for matching research dollars from industrial sources. As a result of these and other partnering schemes, we have more than twice the percentage of university research funded by industry as compared with the United States. This despite the fact that our industries are less high-tech than their U.S. counterparts.

The effect of this on our universities is to deflect too much of our research from the long-term to the short. It makes it harder for us to achieve our bold and proper objective which, as a recent Industry Minister put it, is to "attract and retain the best and brightest minds."

It has long been a concern of policy-makers that an ivory-tower mentality will separate the universities from government and from the private sector. It was a legitimate concern at one time, but is no longer. All parties are in communication. The aim now must be to see that the goals of none are obstructed by another.

Not only do we want each sector, university, government and industry, to function optimally, we want each to exhibit independence. Government funds the universities and then asks the universities for professional advice. This is as it should be. But are university faculty fearful of giving critical opinions on government policy ? Too often, they are. That is, for example, why science in this country (as in some others) continues to be over-managed. We, the researchers, do not speak with a strong enough voice to government.

Industry also funds university research and turns to the universities for advice. Are we in the universities fearful of offending industry ? There are indications that we are. But if that is the case, it works to the disadvantage of both parties.

Why, after all, does industry invest in the universities ? Because their research, which is publicly funded, represents a bargain? That is not an acceptable reason. Is it because their research is based on broad understanding ? That is a good reason, but requires that we leave the universities free to develop that understanding. This they will not do if they are too strongly tied to relevance.

Additionally, and importantly, industry turns to the universities because they represent an independent and therefore credible source of expertise. It should be seen to be vital, therefore, to industry that they do nothing to compromise that independence. This sets a limit to the extent to which industry should determine what university research is done-and what research is not done.

We have struggled for a long time to come to terms with the fact that our universities serve the public interest best when free of government interference in academic affairs. We have now to come to terms with the fact that these same institutions should, in everyone's interest, be substantially free from influence as to what is taught or thought, even by such an interested party as industry.

Compromise will be necessary, but the fundamental principle is sound. What is at stake is the credibility of the university researcher as a searcher for truth, rather than a servant of outside interests. What is at stake, therefore, is the future of our universities.

Learn more about Professor Polanyi.

The views and ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Canada Foundation for Innovation or its Board Directors and Members.