The Important Role Private Company Funding Plays

Thirty years ago, university research was funded primarily through federal and provincial government grants. This research was frequently referred to as ‘blue sky research’, as academics weren’t required to be concerned about the commercial potential of the research outcomes. Successive Liberal and Conservative governments have encouraged greater commercial potential of university research projects. Today, private sector collaboration on research projects is commonplace and in many grant opportunities, it’s a requirement of applying for funding.

Two excellent examples of how industry funding is an essential part of research projects are the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s (NSERC) Industrial Research Chair (IRC) grants and Genome Canada’s grant funding model.

NSERC’s IRC grants are funded in partnership with industry. Under the requirements of the IRC process, companies must first put up funds to undertake research on issues of importance to them and NSERC then matches these funds. These positions are very prestigious and the University of Saskatchewan presently has several of these chairs.

Genome Canada’s recent Large-Scale Applied Research Project Competition required that 60% of a proposal’s budget be secured from other sources, most of which came from industry partners. The University of Saskatchewan has successfully receiving funding through Genome Canada for research in flax, wheat and pulses.

A further example at the University of Saskatchewan was the $35 million endowment from Potash Corporation that established the Global Institute for Food Security. This donation was matched by $15 million from the Government of Saskatchewan. Funding for research projects that improve crop varieties and address the socio-economic issues facing crop innovations has taken place.

In the United States, a large number of academics have been targeted by opponents of biotechnology for their collaborations with industry. These professors, such as Kevin Folta at the University of Florida and Michelle McGuire at Washington State University, have had requests to see all of their emails, because an organics funded group called US Right To Know thinks that the private firms are controlling the research from these academics. Sadly, groups like this have no idea how the nature of university research has changed in the past 10-15 years.

While industry partnership funding has been more common in engineering, computer science and biological sciences, it is becoming more common in some of the social sciences such as economics and public policy. My own research chair is an example of this. The industry partners that have funded my chair are investing in a five-year research program that examines the regulation of new plant breeding technologies and the on-farm impacts of crop innovations such as genetically modified crops. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first social science industry-funded research chair in Canada. This demonstrates how innovative the agriculture industry is as issues like product regulation, international trade and sustainability are actively supported by the provision of funding.

These industry partners requested that a declaration regarding my academic freedom be put in place right from the start. These terms of reference are publicly available under the ‘About SAIFood’ banner above. This demonstrates the integrity of my industry funders.

The students that receive degrees at universities enter the workforce, largely in the private sector. It only makes sense that the private sector contributes funding back to universities to ensure that their future employees receive the best education and training as is available. Collaborating with industry on research projects has benefited numerous students that I’ve taught and supervised.


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