Monday, July 12, 2010

Why the rage against Engage?

The Engage grant is a new NSERC initiative for kick-starting collaborations between industry and academia. The main features of these grants are: short duration (6 months max), limited value ($25,000 max), industry focus (an industrial partner, who will own all the IP, is mandatory), and quick decisions (6 week turnaround, which is only possible with no peer review). I found out on Friday that my Engage proposal would be funded; I'll write more about it as we publish, but the project is in the broad area of fractional resource sharing for femtocells, similar to the earlier work we've done on fractional cooperation (e.g., 1, 2, 3).

So imagine my surprise to learn that the CAUT has come out strongly opposed to Engage, passing the following resolution:
NSERC must remain a granting council that enables peer-reviewed fundamental research. Whereas linkages between industry and universities consistent with academic freedom are possible, the targeting of granting council funds to private industry’s needs erodes Canada’s capa­city to contribute to the general advancement of knowledge in the public interest.
Of course I'm biased because I'm a recipient of NSERC's largesse under this program. But CAUT's position is bizarre on a number of counts. First, it treats all scientific research as equally separate from industrial applications. In wireless communications, there is no tension between the "general advancement of knowledge" and "industry's needs" -- they are one and the same, because essentially all of the applications are industrial. Second, it assumes that only non-industrial research is in the public interest. Again, in wireless, it's the opposite -- the type of research that has a real impact, say by improving your mobile's performance (like this), is coming out of industrial labs, not out of academia. Third, CAUT has completely missed the point of this program: its limited scope, duration, and funding makes it only useful as a door-opener, to give a researcher an easy way to approach a company, and to give that company a low-risk way to say yes to a collaborative project. What's more, Engage grants can only be approved for companies and researchers that have never collaborated before, so this granting program can't be part of some great outsourcing of corporate R&D to universities.

My view on these projects is broadly held across engineering faculties. So CAUT is misunderstanding its membership by opposing the Engage grant, and promoting a "pure" vision of academia that is potentially harmful in some disciplines.

No comments: