“There was lots of dialogue, lots of
interaction during the term of the
project. It wasn’t like I said to the
companies, ‘Take it or leave it.’”
connect with potential employers – many of his students have been hired
by industrial partners upon graduation.
academic freedom very strictly. It’s a culture. The companies know that’s
how we operate,” he says. As well, most of U of A’s IRCs are funded by
multiple industry partners. “That also gives them even more opportunity
for freedom of research because it’s not driven by a single company.”
Dr. AbouRizk paints a somewhat more nuanced picture. He and his
research team meet with industry partners quarterly for three-day meet-
ings. He answers to a technical board, as well. “In general, we count on
them to be involved with us in shaping the research direction,” he says.
“Essentially, they help us with the initial strategic direction of the work
and then they help us make sure that whatever we’ve committed to doing
is actually happening.”
This isn’t a negative thing, he says, since engineering is about apply-
ing knowledge to real-world problems. And, as an academic, he wants to
see his work disseminated – not sitting in a journal somewhere, unread
by people who could use the information.
Dr. Gray, whose IRC was oriented around bitumen processing, also
met frequently with his funders. “There was lots of dialogue, lots of interaction during the term of the project,” he says. Rather than sticking with a
plan laid out at the start of the project, the work shifted according to the
priorities of the funders. “It wasn’t like I said to the companies, ‘ Take it or
leave it,’” says Dr. Gray. Nevertheless, he never felt that the IRC program
limited the scope of his research, partly because he could do other work
on the side. “In my case, I continued to do some work that was independent of the chair,” he says.
Dr. Gray has come across many professors who shun corporate involvement in universities and view industry support as “somehow tainted.”
As much as he disagrees with this idea, he also readily admits that life as a
researcher is much easier with a pro-industry attitude. After collaborating
with industry over the years, he’s no longer on what he calls the grant-writing hamster wheel. “The irony for me is that if I’m willing to work with
companies, they come to me and ask if they can work with me,” he says.
But the situation for many other researchers at the university is that
they must continuously seek funding for their projects, taking away time
that they’d rather spend researching and publishing. “That’s one of the
problems in Canada right now,” asserts Dr. Gray. “If you don’t work with
industry, or do work that’s relevant to the major issues of society, it’s hard
to get funding.”