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The oil patch and the ivory tower

A science student explores her mixed feelings about corporate research

On May 3, 2010, just two weeks after being elected to the editorial board of this newspaper, I began working at the WOW Lab: 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 education in Canada better, to encourage students to be curious, inventive, and to ask questions. Sometime in those first few weeks, I found a Daily 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?”

The WOW Lab officially kicked off on September 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 flatscreen TV and the bookshelves that it sits on, to the hauls of PVC piping and glitter paint, to, most expensively, the above-minimum wage paid team of McGill students: it’s all paid for by IOF. When I tell my radical journalist friends that I pay my rent with Imperial Oil money, they arch an eyebrow. I told a chemical engineer friend where my money comes from, and she said, “I’m hoping to get an internship at Imperial Oil this summer.”

The money for the project comes in the form of a commission, and it comes attached to a few, very flimsy, strings. The lab is a five-year project, and should produce at least 15 “blueprints” for science lesson plans.  There is a full-time manager dedicated exclusively to the project – Maggie Weller, my boss. Weller sends the IOF yearly updates, and they send back two thumbs up. 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: he once taught a lesson to a roomful of elementary students on buoyancy by suiting up in scuba gear, diving into a tank, and having the students predict how much air was required to make him float―a large balloon, a small balloon, or a medium balloon. 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?” I said to Weller, after Deepwater Horizon happened, after I spent all weekend looking at media coverage of petro soaked birds, while curled up in my apartment with a glass of lemonade and a fan on full blast―– both courtesy of a brought-to-you-by-the-IOF pay check.

“Oh, pet. No oil company is perfect,” Weller replied. “Now, put on the tea kettle?”

This summer, I thought of that Daily article again. The piece quotes heavily from Pascale Tremblay, the then-VP University and Academic Affairs of the Post Graduate Student Society (PGSS). “In an ideal world,” says Tremblay 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 on Peel, to meet with a man who explained that the “ideal world” Tremblay lays out is never going to happen. And, moreover, that it should never happen. According to Jean-Francois Nadeau, the 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 flavors,” Nadeau tells me. A company interested in giving to McGill can donate 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, drafting up contracts, suggesting ideas, and patenting the outcomes. They give money, in this case, but they also provide knowledge. This type of partnership is most common in the Faculties of Medicine and 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 says, 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. You can see these numbers in a nice little pie chart in one of McGill’s PR pamphlets. If you ask Nadeau for more details, he will decline to give them to you.

I ask Nadeau if he feels frustrated by people who are anti-corporate research. “Frustrated?” he replied. “No.” To him, arguments categorically against our university working hand-in-hand with corporations 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 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 takes a pretty strong stance against all things corporate: “I am totally opposed to any commercial research in universities,” says Martin. 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 website. 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 curing cancer? He tells me 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 fucking moat, and by a whole 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, for the general happiness of our minds.

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 studies and listens to instructions, I agreed with him. I applied to the WOW Lab not just because I needed money, but as an expression of this feeling. That little orange room is a haven for me, a pocket of curiosity and wonder.

As I explained an activity called “Polymer Balls” to a 4th grade teacher in July, kneading 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 going to be channeled for the good of society.

While trying to sort through my feelings about corporate research (and being declined the details of McGill’s policies by Nadeu), I emailed the current PGSS VP University and Academic Affairs, in an attempt to follow up on the 2007 Daily article –―“Is PGSS still looking at McGill policies on corporate partnerships?” I wrote―– and the note was passed along to the VP External, Mariève Isabel, who is investigating the topic. She said she would be happy to talk to me, and she sent me a text message after PGSS council let out that night, asking to meet up. “I’m offering a beer!” the text said.
So I hiked up the hill, and met her outside Thompson House. We sat down with our beer, and she explained that the council had just, that night, September 14, approved her proposal for a working 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 that night, September 14th, 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 processes 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 lead 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 researcher 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, 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.

In the middle of all this, in a sort-of panic, I emailed Andrew Komar, a masters student in the Faculty of Engineering, who started writing “Prose Encounters of the Nerd Kind” last year when I was Sci+Tech editor. Komar is one of a handful of small bridges between my Daily life and my science life, and sometimes I need someone to join me in the void. I explained the premise of the article in a Facebook message. “We obviously don’t live in a socialist utopia (much as I’d love that),” he replied. We met on lower field.

In his research, Komar is working on building a stronger concrete. He’s not currently funded by a corporation directly, but he’s applying for a fellowship from The American Concrete Association. “It’s going to be helping everybody if you develop a better concrete.”

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’s going to be good people who are doing things for the right reasons, there are going to be people who are doing things that are questionable.” That’s going to happen in any situation.

On Komar’s right hand, there is a black wristband that says “Friendly Atheist,” which he explains he won in a blogging contest. On his right pinky, there is an iron ring. “And can you tell me a bit about the iron ring tradition?” I say, slipping back into interview mode.

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 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 surrounding 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, unless 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 start off: we need to be skeptical. We need to be curious. We need to ask questions.

During the first summer it existed, the employees of the WOW Lab joked about being paid by Imperial Oil, but they tired of the concept by the time I joined the lab in 2010. I don’t recall when I found out our source of funding, but it was sometime during the application process, long before I saw that Daily article.

Recently, I pestered my colleagues for their thoughts on where their paychecks come from, and the consensus boiled down to shrugged shoulders, a general feeling that there was rent that needed to be paid. One of them said, “I think people just hear ‘oil!’ and have this knee jerk reaction, but there is nothing negative going on here.”

Perrin Valli, a former WOW lab employee and now a law student at Queen’s, said that he did have concerns going into the job―that his work would be directly in support of the oil company, influenced by their beliefs―but they evaporated quickly.

“When I proposed a project about renewable energy, I encountered no resistance from Maggie  [Weller] nor from Dr. Alters,” Valli explained in an email. “To the contrary, everyone in the Lab was very excited about the project.”

Valli created a project called “Wind Farm” in which students build windmills out of construction paper and pop bottles. Several of these placed on a desk, hooked together with copper wire, and powered by the moving air from a fan (or, theoretically, real wind) can make a series of LED lights light up. An extended version of the project explains how to make an eight-foot outdoor windmill that can be used to charge an iPod.  The project was sent to Imperial Oil Foundation in one of the lab’s yearly status updates. This past August, a representative from the IOF came to visit McGill to see what we had done with their money. Escorted by the dean of science and the dean of education, she came to visit the WOW Lab. Valli’s prototype had been brought out for display.