A science student explores her mixed feelings about corporate research
// Shannon Palus

Just two weeks after being elected to the editorial board of the McGill Daily, I began working at the WOW Lab at McGill University. WOW is a joint science and education research and design project that develops biology, physics, math, and chemistry projects for use by K-12 teachers in their classrooms to teach science in an interesting, engaging way.

The goal of the project is to make science eduation in Canada better; to encourage students to be curious, inventive, and to ask questions. Sometime in those first few weeks, I found a news article tucked in a folder in the lab: the headline read “Imperial Oil Pledges $800,000 to McGill Project.” The project in question was the WOW Lab. The article ran with a photo captioned, “Should McGill accept money from a climate change denier?”

I.O.F Rollin' in the Cash Money

The WOW Lab officially kicked off on Sept. 17, 2007. The Imperial Oil Foundation founded the lab as a gift, an $800,000 gift, which is still the sum total of the lab’s funding. Everything from the orange paint on the walls of our room in the education building, to the flat-screen TV and the book- shelves that it sits on, to the hauls of PVC piping and glitter paint, to, most expensively, the team of McGill students being paid above-minimum wage … It’s all paid for by IOF.

Maggie Weller, my boss, sends the IOF yearly updates, and they send back two thumbs up. Ac- cording to Weller, they don’t stick their fingers into our work.

WOW Lab was founded by former McGill professor and science popularizer Brian Alters. A California native, Alters is an avid Disney fan – he refers to the student researchers as “imagineers,” and the WOW acronym stands for “Winners of Wonderment.” His method of teaching is over the top, and when critiquing our project ideas, Weller, in this light, often delivers the line, “Can you make that more ‘wow’?”

Still, I had some reservations about taking Imperial Oil’s money. “At least it’s not BP, right?”

Universities and corporations BFFs?

This summer, I thought of that article again. The piece quotes heavily from Pascale Tremblay, the then-vice-president of university and academic affairs of the Post-Graduate Student Society (PGSS). “In an ideal world,” Tremblay said in the article, “we shouldn’t need to have these kinds of huge donations.”

With this in mind, I decided to go into the belly of the beast. I took the elevator to the 15th floor of an office building to meet with a man who explained that the “ideal world” Tremblay laid out is never going to happen. And, moreover, that it should never happen. According to Jean- Francois Nadeau, director of corporate relations at McGill, the university of the future, like that of the present, is one that will work hand-in-hand with corporations. Corporate funding for universities is on the increase – it’s not something that is going to be reversed.

“Corporate funding comes in many flavours,” Nadeau told me. A company interested in giving to McGill can donate tools such as microscopes, services, or a building. They can give a lab a pile of money to work further on a technology or line of research that is interesting to them, or they can work more closely with researchers, draft- ing up contracts, suggesting ideas, and patent- ing the outcomes. They give money, in this case, but they also provide knowledge. This type of partnership is most common in the faculty of medicine and faculty of engineering, which, by definition, set out to create things for society. It can be beneficial to have a corporation that operates on the front lines of society – and markets real products – talking to these labs. “It’s about having a conversation,” Nadeau said, holding up his hands and then lacing his fingers together. “Without corporations, the current model would not work. We need their money, but we also need their knowledge.”

McGill is not deeply entrenched in the corporate-funded model, but it isn’t entirely free of it, either. About 15 per cent of research funding comes directly from the private sector, which amounts to roughly $54 million.

I ask Nadeau if he feels frustrated by people who are against corporate research. “Frustrated?” he replied. “No.” To him, arguments against our university working hand-in-hand with corpora- tions are misguided, based on the “urban myth that corporations are bad.” The way Nadeau tells it, it’s as simple as explaining to a fifth grader that there aren’t really spider eggs hiding in fast food, waiting for you to take a bite so they can hatch and spawn offspring in your esophagus.

To make an argument wholly in favor of corporate research, however, is to overlook more than just those cases where egregious conflicts of interest have cropped up. In science, conflicts of interest can operate subtly. Little mistakes and small decisions can accumulate into a sea of change until, one grant at a time, the whole community is chasing the wrong questions. In “an ideal world”, we might have no conflicts of interest, not just those posed by corporations, but also by government grants, or by the “publish or perish” model of success.

Eric Martin, a doctoral candidate at the University of Ottawa and researcher at the Quebec think-tank IRIS, is a strict anti-capitalist. He took a pretty strong stance against all things corporate. “I am totally opposed to any commercial research in universities,” he said.

To be clear, he is talking about all commercial research: both projects in which a corporation is directly interested in selling the results, and ones in which they hand over money through a foundation, and collect only a tax break and something to put on their public relations web- site. He is opposed to corporations giving money for buildings on campus. He is opposed to the Second Cup in the library at the University of Ottawa. “We have a Tim’s in our library,” I say. “That is disgusting,” he replied. When I spoke with him, he was on vacation, in a cabin.

I posed a question to Martin: what if a corporate-funded lab at a university is capable of cur- ing cancer? He tells me that that’s the kind of a trick question that makes him look like the villain if he says it’s bad. He thinks that kind of research has a place, outside of the university, and that a university can better serve society by being free of monetary influence.

Martin says he’s conservative in a way: he wants to get things back to the way they were. “Historically, the university was a fortress,” says Martin. To him, researchers should not just be separated from the world by an arm’s length, but by a whole moat and a doctrine of rules and beliefs. “University is no less sacred than the Church.”

There is something in Martin’s radical conservatism that appeals to me: his ideal university is one where research happens in a vaccuum, away from the pressures of society – for curiosity’s sake, and for the general happiness of our minds.

"Mind-Fucked" by the Education System

Two years ago, wrapping up my first year in the physics major program, I wrote an article that came out of an interview with Denis Rancourt, a former physics professor at the University of Ottawa who was fired for giving an entire senior class A+s. He called the current system of education a “mind-fuck.” After a year of labs that felt very much like they were designed to mold my brain into that of a drone who only studies and listens to instructions, I agreed with him.

As I explained an activity called “Polymer Balls” to a fourth-grade teacher in July, knead- ing a wad of hardening liquid, latex, and vinegar into a super-ball shape, he interrupted me: “But how do I evaluate my students on this stuff? They need grades.”

Moments like those are frustrating to me – stop trying to quiz your students, and let them have fun! – but they also make me feel like we’re on the front lines of something. I am being paid $12 an hour to be creative, a creativity that is go- ing to be channeled for the good of society.

While trying to sort through my feelings about corporate research, I followed up with the PGSS.

Vice-president external Mariève Isabel ex- plained that the council had just that night, Sept. 14 2011, approved her proposal for a work- ing group to look into how McGill is funded by corporations.

Isabel is studying environment and French literature. In 2010, she read a report called Big Oil Goes to College. The report looks at contracts that oil companies have with universities: the terms, the impacts, the loopholes. “It raised the question, how is it going at McGill? The thing is, we don’t really know.”

In August, PGSS hired a part-time researcher to find out, and as of Sept. 14, they decided to allocate even more financial resources to this project. The researcher will look at the contracts that corporations have at McGill, determine how accessible they are to students, and identify the process- es that go into drafting them. Isabel stresses that this research is to be as non-partisan as possible.

They are not positioning themselves against corporate research with this decision, she explains: “In a lot of fields, like pharmacy and engineering, you want to see your research applied. We want to protect fundamental research, research that is led by curiosity, but we do recognize there is a demand for corporate involvement.”

Along with the work plan for investigating corporate ties, PGSS is also going to hire a re- searcher to look into the history of McGill as an organization. Isabel thinks that the current view of what a university should be is sometimes too romanticized. She recognizes that it is not only unrealistic to think that universities can’t work with commercial organizations, but that a lot of good solutions to problems can come out of labs that collaborate with industry. She just hopes that the trend is one that can be monitored and kept at bay.

One Ring to Rule Them All

In the middle of all this, in a sort-of panic, I emailed Andrew Komar, a master’s student in the faculty of engineering. “We obviously don’t live in a socialist utopia (much as I’d love that),” he replied.

In his research, Komar is working on building stronger concrete. He’s not currently funded by a corporation directly, but he’s applying for a fellow- ship from the American Concrete Association.

He knows that there are problems that can come up with conflicts of interest, but those are things to be watched and investigated – not a reason to put a blanket ban on corporate money: “There [are] going to be good people who are do- ing things for the right reasons, there are going to be people who are doing things that are ques- tionable.” That’s going to happen in any situation, he explains.

On Komar’s right hand, there is a black wrist- band that says “Friendly Atheist,” which he ex- plains he won in a blogging contest. On his right pinky, there is an iron ring.

In Canada, when you earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering, you don’t just walk across a stage and pick up a diploma. There is another ceremony, one that happens in secret, and it puts an iron ring on your working hand.

“It is to constantly remind you that you are bound to society. You don’t exist in a vacuum.” Komar might not be into the brouhaha surround- ing the ceremony, but he subscribes to the sentiment behind this one. “We hold ourselves to a standard, ethically,” he explains. “Even if you don’t do anything legally wrong, you can still mess up. You can have your engineering society membership revoked.”

So, where does that leave us, wide-eyed and young and, as so many university students are, politically left? We are going to grow up and, un- less you intend on living in the woods and cutting yourself off from the world, inherit a system in which this is how things work. If they change, if they need to be steered on a course that is more ethical, it will be a subtle and slow process: little ideas and small decisions. This is where to begin: we need to be skeptical. We need to be curious. We need to ask questions.

// Shannon Palus, The McGill Daily (McGill University)
// Illustration by Stefan Tosheff

Enjoy it? Share this on Facebook


© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: