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Basic research should still be a cornerstone of universities.

Peer review ensures that resources are not wasted on "trivial projects"

At a time when symphony orchestras and museums are closing their doors to the public, we cannot allow our universities to stumble into irrelevance and oblivion. A university is a collection of scholars whose aims are to gain a deeper understanding of their chosen fields.

Despite what Stuart Smith may believe, we must do more than give lectures or run laboratory classes. Teaching and research are not mutually exclusive activities; indeed, frontier research fuels good teaching. It is very common to find that the stellar researchers are also the most effective undergraduate instructors.

Science is not the mere learning of a set of laws formulated by the giants of the past. Students must be aware of the exciting and controversial nature of modern chemistry, physics, biology and other disciplines. It would be depressing to think that all the world's great music and literature has already been written; it would be equally disastrous if there were no more great scientific concepts to be discovered. Happily, neither of these scenarios is likely to be true.

Research is the lifeblood of a university; this does not involve mere data collection but rather the critical evaluation of our models of nature. The Canadian research enterprise is at a perilous crossroads. We have seen how political pressures have seriously weakened the internationally recognized excellence of the National Research Council (NRC): it is crucial that the universities do not suffer the same fate by attrition. Of course money would help, but perhaps we should try a more flexible approach!

I have been much impressed with the French system in which personnel from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) are distributed within the universities. CNRS scientists hold positions comparable to the assistant/associate/full professor ranks and generally participate in graduate student supervision. They are members (or leaders) of research teams and provide the expertise and, just as importantly, the continuity that is so frequently lacking in the Canadian system where many small groups balance on the edge of viability.

Such a fusion of some members of the NRC with the universities would not only invigorate research on the campuses but would also get many of our best scientists away from Ottawa where politics often override scientific considerations. It would also allow the NRC researchers to have much more contact with undergraduates and beginning graduate students rather than merely the best post-doctoral fellows. Finally, I would propose that there be some temporary university/NRC positions to support sabbatical exchanges within Canada and also for visiting foreign scientists.

The politicians continue to believe that basic research is an unproductive use of our resources, and that they should control the direction of scientific activity by focusing their financial support in "areas of national priority" at the expense of curiosity-driven projects. But we are not wasting our resources on trivial projects; the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) peer review system takes care of that!

It has been claimed that industrial support for basic research is less than it should be. Certainly, recent changes in the patent protection legislation should lead to more collaboration in the area of pharmaceutical chemistry and related fields, but one can see little advantage for many branches of chemistry. Clearly, collaboration with industry is most desirable, but we must not be regarded merely as a cheap labor source.

The contents of a thesis must be publishable: otherwise, one should question the appropriateness of the work carried out by the graduate student and its validity for a doctoral thesis. Naturally, one should not discourage doctoral candidates from tackling projects of a practical nature - that would be an absurd and indefensible position. But we must maintain some balance; we must retain the freedom to pursue a theoretically challenging problem when we encounter an unexpected result. I suspect that industry is reasonably satisfied with the scientific calibre of the graduates we produce, but they may legitimately claim that we do not prepare them to communicate with non-scientists. This is a problem which we ourselves must address.

I do not believe that NSERC should be funding "directed research"; the copious amounts of time spent in making applications, acting as reviewers or committee members would be much more profitably spent doing the science we were trained to do. The ever-increasing demand for paperwork is destroying the research environment in Canada. Perhaps the most appropriate mechanism for industrially sponsored research would be an agency set up along the lines of the Petroleum Research Fund.

Let me summarize my deliberately overstated and occasionally provocative views: it is the role of the universities to instruct, inspire and develop the best minds in the country. I suggest that one approach to this would involve a partial devolution of the NRC into the universities. We can best help Canada by providing a pool of talented young people trained to tackle the severe technological problems that we now face. The future of the country depends on it.

Michael J. McGlinchey, FCIC, professor of chemistry, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ont.
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Author:McGlinchey, Michael J.
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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