“History is a race between education and catastrophe.” — H G Wells
HG Wells may not have had a time machine, but he was certainly prescient.
In The Time Machine the narrator, known simply as the Traveller, invents a contraption that takes him to 802,701 AD. There he finds a world inhabited by waif-like Eloi who loll around doing nothing and ape-like Morlocks who eat them. The Traveller temporarily upsets the balance of this efficient economic system when he accidentally starts a forest fire.
Wells’ premise is simple. Humans without intelligence evolve into Eloi; those with intelligence evolve into Morlocks who provide food, clothing and shelter to the Eloi—right up to the time they’re slaughtered, rather like a rancher harvesting his herd.
I was reminded of the simple-minded Eloi when I read this newspaper headline: Oil Slump brings diversification back into view.
In recapping the impact of the precipitous drop in oil prices The Globe noted, “When oil booms end, revenue disappears, leaving large and unexpected deficits”.*
Well, okay, $7.5 billion is a large deficit, but even Premier Prentice wouldn’t dare characterize the deficit as “unexpected”.
In fact he has a solution. It’s time to diversify around energy, agriculture and tourism.
Details of this diversification plan (one of dozens that have been commissioned by the Alberta government over the last 40 years) are non-existent, but Premier Prentice says it will include the “commercialization” of university research.
“I’m quite passionate,” he says, “about this whole notion about our inability to commercialize our university research. I’m focused on that. We need to be successful at going from primary research to the building of companies and the commercialization and capitalization of companies that can take advantage of that research”.*
And how do the universities feel about Mr Prentice’s unilateral directive (which was last trotted out by Mr Lukaszuk when he was Minister of Advanced Education)?
The U of A responds
The University of Alberta is undoubtedly Alberta’s premier university. Indira Samarasekera (known as IS to her colleagues) became its president in 2005. She was determined to make the U of A one of the world’s top research universities.
She says the U of A is not “…attracting the kinds of brainpower that would help us with the best ideas and the drive to commercialize them.”**
She blames the government’s lack of long-term vision and its failure to provide stable funding for basic university operations.
She says that Mr Prentice’s 9% cut on top of Ms Redford’s 7.2% cut will create an impossible situation, pointing out that there’s a need for more investment not less, particularly in the areas of environment and energy research.
While all this is true—incidentally it would have been nice if Ms Samarasekera voiced these concerns to Ed Stelmach, Alison Redford and Jim Prentice before she left the U of A, instead of raising them now as she’s breezing out the door—it does not address the fundamental issue underlying the commercialization of academic research, namely how much should funding be tied to commercialization?
(Sure, funding research to eliminate tailings ponds and commercializing the result is a good thing, but funding basic research that eliminates our reliance on fossil fuels or cures cancer is even better.)
Out of the crisis
Thomas Friedman (writer and three time Pulitzer Prize winner) and Ms Soapbox (blogger and one time Clawbie winner) disagree on virtually everything, but they do agree on this: education is the key to solving the current economic crisis.
Friedman says we must develop new approaches and new technologies that will become the foundation of future economies.*** This makes sense given that repeating the existing approaches and fine tuning existing technologies aren’t getting us very far.
If we applied this principle in Alberta, our government would provide stable funding to universities not just for research geared to commercialization and the generation of profits, but also for pure scientific research intended to increase our understanding of phenomena which may or may not be commercialized at some point in the future.
A place to learn
What would such a university look like?
Professor Jeremy Richards puts it best in the excellent University of Alberta blog Whither the U of A.
He says universities should provide a high quality traditional education to students “who are here to learn, not just to get a piece of paper”. Instead of pushing so-called innovative learning techniques, he suggests going “retro” and showing students how to learn for themselves. He’d like universities to halve the minimum number of instructional hours and double the amount of homework or lab work because that’s where “real learning occurs”. Not once did he mention “commercialization”.
It’s worth a try, isn’t it?
Which brings me back to H G Wells. He said “In England we have come to rely upon a comfortable time-lag of fifty years or a century intervening between the perception that something ought to be done and a serious attempt to do it.”
In Alberta we have the same problem. The Tories have been talking about diversifying our economy for 44 years. It’s time to stop talking about it and make a serious attempt to do it so that the next time the Morlocks pack up and leave town the Eloi won’t perish.
*Globe & Mail, Feb 21, 2015 S1
**Globe & Mail, Feb 13, 2015, A10
***Doomed to Repeat: The Lessons of History We’ve Failed to Learn, by Bill Fawcett, 268