There is increasing interest at Canadian universities in corporate sponsorship and its implications for post-secondary education.
Angela Regnier, national deputy chair of the Canadian Federation of Students, believes corporate sponsorship of research and teaching significantly threatens academic freedom.
She claims the fundamental goals of private research don’t align with those of public research; universities have a mandate to participate in education and research for the common good, whereas the ultimate goal of private entities is profit.
According to Ted Hewitt, Western’s VP-research and international relations, threats to academic freedom and research integrity are always possible, no matter the funding source.
Hewitt added partnerships with private entities are valuable because they give faculty and graduate students the opportunity to work on real-life problems, an important career-development tool for graduate students.
In addition, such partnerships can promote economic development; if we help companies increase their profitability, it benefits Canadian society, Hewitt said.
Regnier lamented the lack of safeguards to protect researchers and teachers involved in public private research partnerships.
The CFS encourages the adoption of whistle-blower legislation, both at the federal and institutional level, to protect faculty and students from reprisals when they speak out against corporate wrong-doing.
Regnier also stressed the importance of prohibiting non disclosure agreements in research grants, which give corporate sponsors the right to delay or in some cases bar the publication of results.
The U.S. currently has whistle blower legislation at the federal level and an office of research to protect academic integrity, Regnier said.
When asked whether Western would consider such a policy, Hewitt said, “We work towards that end by having a good contract to begin with — that is the best way to do that.”
Hewitt said contracts with corporate research partners are negotiated with the administration. During negotiation, safeguards are built to protect researchers from undue influence. For example, Hewitt the administration “discourages delay on the publication of results,” and there is no delay of more than six months.
The key safeguard protecting academic freedom, Regnier said, is increasing core funding for post secondary education, so a university isn’t compelled to seek corporate sponsors to restore public funding.
The federal government has made significant cutbacks to post secondary funding over the past decade and has set up numerous incentives for public-private partnerships between universities and corporations.
This point isn’t contested by administrators, who agree corporate sponsorship is necessary in light of reduced government transfers to the post-secondary system.