4 / www.universityaffairs.ca / January 2017
The spread of Canadian research talent
I’d agree with Leo Groarke that research talent is spread widely
in Canadian universities (“Is research funding ‘skewed’ to
larger universities?” December 2016 issue). But, that doesn’t
mean that it is equally spread, which is the implicit contention
of the original PLOS One article (“Bias in Research Grant
Evaluation Has Dire Consequences for Small Universities,”
June 3, 2016). Since small average differences will likely end
up mattering quite a lot in very competitive processes, it’s
possible for there to be a wide dispersion of talent and
significant clumping of research money without bias being
the explanation. I wonder about the degree to which granting
councils around the world spread money around to non-“elite”
universities; i.e., do the Australian, British or American
counterparts of universities such as Trent or the universities
of Regina or Lethbridge, for example, receive equivalent
amounts of research funding? My impression is that they
do not and that Canada is better at this than others. But,
admittedly I don’t know the data well enough to be sure
(and apples-to-apples comparisons here would be tricky).
This would be a good research project for someone, though.
Mr. Usher is president of the consulting firm Higher Education Strategy Associates in Toronto.
Deference, democracy and university governance
writing in the December 2016 issue, Kathryn
Shailer urges faculty members to hit the “reset”
button in their “strained relationship” with
senior administrators and boards. Instead, as I
read her tendentious article, my index finger was
drawn to the “delete” button.
In Dr. Shailer’s view, presidents and provosts
are the “most important advocates and allies
[of faculty] in discussions with boards.” Faculty
associations, on the other hand, “diminish the
value of universities” with their “resistance
to belt-tightening” and they “need to stop
invoking infringement of academic freedom ...
every time an administrator proposes changes to
I certainly hope that senior administrators
are the “advocates and allies” of faculty. But their
advocacy takes place behind the heavy oak doors
of the boardroom; it is rare indeed to see any
sliver of daylight between the public positions
of the board and the senior administration.
As to Dr. Shailer’s “belt-tightening” metaphor,
it brought to mind an old Steve Goodman song:
“I saw the boss come a walkin’ down along the
factory line / he said we all have to tighten up
our belts / But he didn’t look any thinner than
he did a year ago / and I wonder just how hungry
www.affaresunverstares.ca / décembre 2016 / 41
“Research talent is widely
distributed across the
Canadian university system.”
À mon avis
In my opinion
The NHL view of universities
Is research funding “skewed”
to larger universities?
Leo Groarke is president of
very decade has its trend, and in the
university sector “differentiation” seems
to define the current one. It’s difficult to
take issue with the basic idea: different
institutions should focus on their different strengths. But, this notion has encouraged
some implausible conclusions that warrant
better scrutiny. One of them is the notion that
research (and graduate studies) be privileged at
The issues this conclusion raises are highlighted in a recent article by Dennis L. Murray
et al. in Plos One (and also in the June-July 2016
issue of University Affairs), which claims that the
evaluation of NSERC applications is biased in
favour of larger universities. Its statistical survey
shows “that funding success and grant amounts
… are consistently lo wer for applicants from
small institutions. This pattern persists across
applicant experience levels, is consistent among
three criteria used to score grant proposals, and
therefore is interpreted as representing system
bias targeting applicants from small institutions.”
In one of his provocative commentaries, Alex
Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy
Associates, has encouraged his readers to read
Murray et al., but not for the reasons the authors
themselves suggest. According to Mr. Usher, the
more plausible explanation for the different
NSERC success rates at small and large institutions is that, “just maybe, faculty research quality
is not randomly distributed. Maybe big rich universities use their resources mainly to attract faculty deemed to have greater research potential.
Maybe they don’t always guess quite right about
who has that potential and who doesn’t, but on
the whole it seems likelier than not that the system works more or less as advertised.”
This is an important hypothesis, not because
it is plausible, but because it exposes some deep
prejudices about research at Canadian universities. I call this the “NHL view,” because it suggests
that the university system operates in the way that
the National Hockey League and other professional sports do: with major and minor leagues.
The NHL view places large universities in the
majors and smaller universities (of the sort studied in the Murray paper) in the minors when it
comes to research talent and ability. We can see
how badly this misconstrues the way that research
works in Canadian universities by considering
how major and minor leagues work in hockey.
Minor hockey leagues are populated by players who are not ready to play in the NHL. They
sign with a minor league team which is affiliated
with a major league team, in the hopes that they
can make it to the NHL. The salaries of players
in the majors are many times those of minor
leaguers. The latter have short and precarious
careers which consist of short-term contracts.
Does this system of employment compare to
research appointments at Canadian universities?
Hardly. Research in Canadian universities is tied
to tenure-track positions. They go to newly
minted PhDs who are qualified to work at any
university of any size – and not as short-term
appointments, but as permanent positions that
can continue for 30 or 40 years.
Tenure-track salaries at large universities are
not enormously different from salaries at small
universities (when one takes the cost of living in
large cities into account, they are in some ways
lower). As anyone who hires faculty knows, a position’s status as tenure-track or not is a far more
significant component of a position than salary is.
Especially in the situation in which there are
more qualified candidates than there are jobs, faculty go wherever they are able to secure a position
(i.e. to where the jobs are when they graduate). In
situations in which they have a choice, their decisions are influenced by many things: the desire
to live in a particular location, proximity to their
extended family, the fit between them and an academic department, the career opportunities for
their spouse, cost of living and so on.
Not surprisingly,in view of this, research talent
is widely distributed across the Canadian university system. Here and there, institutions – small
as well as large – create unique positions for
research stars, but such positions are a tiny component of the university system, and programs
like the Canada Research Chairs ensure that they
are spread across all kinds of universities.
If Canada is to get the most out of the funding
it provides for research activities,this funding
needs to follow talent. There is no good reason
to believe that some select group of universities
has some kind of systematic advantage in this
regard. The NHL view of Canadian universities
is misleading. Any biases it promotes need to be
rectified if Canada is to make the most of research
activity at its universities.
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that man felt” (“Somebody Else’s Troubles,” 1973).
And I was amused by Dr. Shailer’s belief that
faculty members “defer” to association executives.
Having served as president of the University of
Guelph Faculty Association, I can assure Dr.
Shailer that I did not want, did not expect – and
certainly did not receive – any such “deference.”
Association executives are elected democratically;
Canadian university provosts, presidents and
boards of governors aren’t.
Dr. Josephy is a professor of molecular and cellular biology at the
University of Guelph.
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