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University partnerships with industry compromise academic principles

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In November, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) released a report on collaborations between post-secondary institutions and industry. It follows a similar report conducted by the Center for American Progress detailing 10 pacts between energy companies and major U.S. Universities.

Titled "Open for Business: On What Terms?," the report found that 10 out of the 12 Canadian university-industry partnerships reviewed violate standards for academic integrity.

"It is vital to ensure that universities do not sacrifice their academic integrity when they enter into collaborations with industry," said CAUT Executive Director Jim Turk. "This means academic staff and students must have access to the terms of proposed collaborations before they are signed."

One of the collaborations examined is the partnership between the Centre for Oil Sands Innovation (COSI) and the University of Alberta. After obtaining documents through freedom of information requests, the report identifies a number of troubling issues in the agreement, including a lack of a requirement for non-partisan external review of research and a considerably lax policy for handling conflicts of interest. Moreover, the report finds that the agreement violates the university’s own intellectual property policies, as well as the collective agreement between the university and faculty.

The University of Alberta issued a response to CAUT's report, claiming that its COSI agreements were "fully compliant" with the university's patent policy and faculty agreement.

However, "the University of Alberta’s policy on intellectual property and the collective agreement for faculty both say that intellectual property reside with the person(s) who created it unless they have signed an agreement to the contrary," explains Turk. "If COSI requires faculty sign such an agreement as a condition of being part of the collaboration, that would be a violation of academic freedom and contrary to the spirit of the University policy and the collective agreement."

Despite claims from the University of Alberta that the COSI agreements protect academic freedom, there is no mention of it in the agreement with Imperial Oil.

"We are pleased that the university has indicated its commitment to academic freedom," said Turk. "Unfortunately, the COSI agreements, by undermining key academic staff intellectual property and publication rights, and by placing the direction and control of research with external parties, are fundamentally at odds with this commitment."

On the same day the CAUT Collaborations Report was released, the University of Alberta announced a new partnership with the Canadian Oilsands Innovation Alliance. As reported in the Edmonton Journal, a group of 13 oil companies have committed up to $1.75 million to the funding of two new research chairs dedicated to biodiversity conservation. While Stan Boutin, one of the new chairs, says that he is "confident academic independence is protected," the details of the agreement have yet to be released.

Ultimately, as more and more universities partner with corporations and other external groups, it is crucial that these collaborations adhere to those principles designed to protect academic freedom and the public interest.

Samantha Montgomery does research and advocacy for the Canadian Association of University Teachers. CAUT is the national voice of 68,000 academic and general staff at more than 120 universities and colleges across Canada.

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Image: CAUT

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