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The future is interdisciplinary

(This was originally published in The Hill Times on November 3, 2017 and carried by Universities Canada)

Given the complexity of social, political, environmental, economic and technological challenges facing the world, interdisciplinary research is very quickly becoming something no country can do without.

In the past 20 years, interdisciplinary research—studies involving researchers from multiple academic disciplines—has gone from ‘nice to have’ to ‘need to have.’ Today, given the complexity of social, political, environmental, economic and technological challenges facing the world, it is very quickly becoming something no country can do without.

Canada has the skills, talent and capacity to be an international leader in research and innovation. Seizing that opportunity will require concerted effort and unequivocal government support for interdisciplinary as well as traditional discipline-based research. This was recognized by last spring’s federally commissioned Fundamental Science Review, which included a clear call for greater support for research across disciplines. The authors of that document acknowledged research councils have made efforts in this area, but that more must be done to encourage multidisciplinary research.

Why, exactly? Because it exposes specialists in one area to other perspectives and ways of thinking, challenging received truths and spurring creativity and innovation. In many ways, academic disciplines are like houses, and with disciplinary research nearly everything happens “at home.” I personally like to get out of my own house from time to time, talk to other people, and encounter new perspectives.

In research, this “getting out of the house” has become essential because the problems to be confronted spill across borders, cultural divides and fields of knowledge. Take climate change. It’s not just an environmental issue: it has enormous economic and social implications. How can we possibly take on the challenge of modulating climate change without dealing with the impact of environmental change on local communities and Indigenous peoples?

Technology is another case in point. The rise of the ‘Internet of Things’ and advancement of artificial intelligence both present questions we’ve never had to ask before—questions that are not just of a technical nature but also ethical, legal and sociological.

In all these cases, “interdisciplinary” means not just across the hard sciences but the social sciences as well. To focus only on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is to leave a huge amount of intellectual capacity on the table. This is something that someone like Steve Jobs, for example, understood intuitively. It was the combination of engineering excellence and insight into how people interact that made Apple the company it is today.

The value of social science research is not always easy to quantify, though its absence is keenly felt. This was the case with the rollout of the HPV vaccine a few years ago. Some social science research to understand how the public might perceive the vaccine before it was unveiled could have strengthened communications around the launch—and prevented resistance from parents based on unfounded concerns that it would promote teenage promiscuity.

Some areas of research already employ an interdisciplinary approach regularly. It’s easy to find health science labs with biochemists, biologists, pharmacologists and other specialists working shoulder to shoulder. This needs to be broadened.

Interdisciplinary research is something we prioritize at Queen’s, from our degree program in neuroscience to our centres and institutes that bring together faculty from across departments. Our Dunin-Deshpande Queen’s Innovation Centre (DDQIC), which forms teams of young entrepreneurs from diverse disciplines, is testament to the strength of cross-disciplinary research. It was the incubator for Spectra Plasmonics, an entrepreneurial student project that won first prize at an international pitch competition in Singapore this year, beating 35 international teams.

So what needs to happen for Canada to see and support more interdisciplinary research? First, governments at all levels need to fund it. The bodies that administer that funding need to make sure they don’t impose conditions that serve as impediments to interdisciplinary research, effectively administering people back into the corners of their departments, or allow research projects to fall between the gaps.

Within academia, we have an opportunity to think about ways of forging new connections among disciplines, creating the structures to do this kind of work.

We are at the point today where we have to decide how we want to tackle the future. Greg Bavington, the executive director of DDQIC, often asks, “What kind of hockey team would you have if you had all the best goalies in the world—and no one else?” It takes a well-rounded team to achieve a common goal.

The future will be full of challenge and opportunity—most of which we cannot now predict. Rapid technological advances, geo-political challenges and climate change will test our ability to react and navigate. It is through interdisciplinary research teams that we will be best able to respond to these changes, to innovate, seize new opportunities and improve quality of life—both at home and abroad.

Cultural Appropriations Have Lasting Harm

It has come to my attention that plans are underway to organize a party known as “Beerfest” at an off-campus house. The history of this “annual” event is not a proud one; already numerous students who feel upset, scared and unsafe have contacted me to express their concerns.

Last year, participants wore costumes that consisted of unacceptable cultural appropriations, and through their actions alienated groups on campus or otherwise caused members of our community to feel belittled or uncomfortable.

It is clear from the language used by the organizers that they have failed to appreciate the lasting harm and the negative impacts this specific event had on others – particularly on racialized members of our community. The evident lack of empathy and judgement of the organizers (and any participants) is alarming and disappointing.

Clearly, some students fail to appreciate that our society has changed and progressed; people expect better of students, and rightly are less tolerant of insulting and hurtful behaviours towards others. We have seen and can expect more outrage from the community when students engage in unacceptable behaviours.

Queen’s strives to be a diverse and inclusive community. Any event that degrades, mocks or marginalizes a group or groups of people flies in the face of our shared values and is completely unacceptable. I am grateful that so many students, staff and faculty on campus share this belief and have had the courage to raise their concerns.

To any students who may be feeling negatively affected or in need of help, the university stands with you. I encourage you to speak to someone if you feel you need support. To those who have not yet learned to respect others, I hope you know we are paying close attention.

Keep Homecoming Safe and Respectful

With Homecoming only days away, I invite you to participate in one of the many inclusive activities intended for the enjoyment of alumni and students alike. I also ask you to join me in encouraging everyone to demonstrate safe, respectful behaviour and good judgement throughout the weekend. Homecoming is a special event for Queen’s – it holds a unique place in the hearts of Queen’s students and alumni – and we all want this year’s Homecoming to be a success.

Please take time this weekend to welcome and help honour our returning alumni. Perhaps ask them to share some of their stories and memories that will have brought them back to campus. Join in activities such as Gaels games, tours, open houses, panels, and the ReUnion Street festival; these are all great opportunities for students to meet and greet returning members of the Queen’s family, who continue to cherish and support our university.

Safety for everyone is a paramount concern. Poor citizenship or irresponsible and unsafe behaviours can negatively affect peers and members of our Kingston community – so please consider the impact of your actions on others. For example, large street gatherings that block roadways, or taking up hospital spaces and resources with what could be preventable issues, divert emergency services away from urgent needs in the community. No one wants to see that happen.

During Homecoming, you are ambassadors for and representatives of Queen’s. The University expects you to set and follow a high standard of positive, community-minded behaviour, on and off campus, and ask that you, in turn, expect the same of your peers and of visitors. Have fun, but adhere to the Student Code of Conduct, and respect local laws and community standards. Misconduct can result in fines, charges, and referral to the university’s Non Academic Misconduct system.

In preparation for this year’s celebrations, Queen’s and the Alma Mater Society have made great efforts to promote student health and safety with the intent of reducing the number of student-related incidents involving city, public safety and healthcare resources.

Activities and services in place include Residence Life’s third annual Homecoming (HOCO) 101 – an opportunity for students in residences to learn about Homecoming, to prepare some spirit items for the weekend, and to receive reminders of safe drinking practices. There are also alternative evening activities, extended dining hall hours, water and snack distribution, additional capacity in the Campus Observation Room, additional AMS Walkhome staff and Dons on duty, and a host of other events to provide options to students, and promote personal safety. Students finding themselves in distress or needing support are encouraged to access all of the services available to help.

The Alma Mater Society executive and the Student Maintenance and Resource Team (SMART) will conduct a neighbourhood cleanup early Sunday morning. Please make the team’s work light by disposing of your trash properly and keeping the surrounding areas tidy.

Enjoy Homecoming, and please help me to encourage everyone to keep it a safe, respectful and inclusive event enjoyed this year and for years to come.

Culture, Heritage, and Dialogue: My Experience in Canada’s North

Guest author Justine Aman (ArtSci’18) writes about her experience with Global Vision’s Arctic Youth Ambassador Caucus in Iqaluit. Her trip was sponsored in part by the Principal’s Student Initiatives Fund.

With exams looming and the end of the semester imminent, it is with a grateful and slightly stressed out heart that I am writing about an incredible experience I had the opportunity to partake in. For a week this past March, I took part in Global Vision’s Arctic Youth Ambassador Caucus in Iqaluit, Nunavut, a mission which brings together 50 Canadian youth leaders (25 from the North and 25 from Southern Canada). Global Vision (GV) is a national not-for-profit charitable organization, founded in 1991 by former Member of Parliament, Terry Clifford. GV has organized this Caucus every year since 2010 with the purpose of fostering a dialogue on the unique issues faced by Canada’s North. The roundtable topics this year included food security, health care, environment, poverty, and education.

Even though temperatures averaged -50 C, the passion and intelligence of the youth leaders was enough to warm your soul (even if your ears remained frozen). Conversations were engaging and insightful, with members of Nunavut’s government as well as Elders and community leaders all participating with the goal of furthering awareness, sharing experiences, and promoting knowledge. Eight-five per cent of Nunavut’s population is Indigenous and many of the most northern points of Canada have a majority Indigenous population. Because of these demographics, the Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants in the Caucus emphasized the importance of culturally appropriate solutions. The open and supportive environment allowed for constant dialogue and exchange of ideas. At the same time, we made connections and developed friendships with some of the most incredible people, who, without this program, would have remained strangers.

Although the Caucus had clear overall goals, GV encouraged its ambassadors to identify individual areas of interest, allowing for a personalized experience with relevant take-aways. For me, as a third-year sociology student, I integrated my interest of population health and health-care quality to expand my knowledge of these topics within the context of Northern Canada. It was a first-hand look at Canada’s North and the role that social and physical determinants play in determining the health of Canada’s most northern populations. While there, I took the opportunity to observe and educate myself about some of the barriers and enablers impacting the addressment of the HIV/AIDS epidemic among Indigenous peoples. I drew upon these observations to supplement a final project, in which I created a health-care intervention program that addressed these factors through the collaboration of Western medical techniques and traditional Indigenous medicine.

As you can imagine, a program that can break down geographical barriers within our own country to create cross-Canada dialogue costs a lot more than your average exam snack haul. I have been, and continue to be, absolutely blown away by the generosity of individuals, various community groups, and Queen’s University that made this dream a reality. Departmental support and the Principal’s Student Initiatives Fund are just a few of the many ways that Queen’s supports its students and, without which, I would have been unable to participate in this program. I have brought back the knowledge and experience I gained during my time in Nunavut and have prepared presentations for various community groups – all to keep the conversation going. I cannot wait to see where the future takes me and how I can continue to use this experience to strengthen North-South dialogue and to encourage youth to become community leaders.

Cha Gheill,

Justine Aman (Artsci’18)

An alternative, industry-linked model for PhD training

This op-ed first appeared in University Affairs on March 28, 2017.

We’ve heard a great deal in recent years about a “skills gap” being experienced by business and industry and the need for more apprentices, pipe-fitters and so on. Much of this concern is economic-cycle dependent and the downturn in energy prices has quieted this discussion. What is less at issue is the need for more “work-integrated learning,” a broad category that can include everything from formal co-op programs to one-year internships, to more course-based experiential education. Universities such as Queen’s have invested heavily in recent years in creating programs and opportunities for our students to learn the lessons (some of them hard) of entrepreneurship and innovation. This will be a good thing, as long as there is sufficient supply of graduates also prepared to go into business, industry and the non-profit or public sectors – not everyone can or should be an independent entrepreneur.

But what about the needs of business and industry at the more advanced level? At a recent meeting of the U15 group of universities, a number of STEM industry leaders noted that there appeared to be a downturn in the production of PhDs generally and of PhDs in STEM disciplines in particular. However, the most recent numbers coming from Statistics Canada show that the number of PhD degrees awarded grew steadily between 2006 and 2013. That said, Canada falls below the OECD average with respect to the number of PhDs held – surely a problem if we are to be competitive in the global knowledge economy – and perhaps the reason behind the sense of a “downturn.”

Canada’s low number of PhD holders could be ascribed to a combination of factors including:

  1. the reduction in real terms of funding for investigator driven basic science research over the past decade;
  2. the sluggish academic job market, which, given constraints on provincial budgets (the primary funder of university operating expenses in Canada) and the absence of mandatory retirement, is not likely to change in the medium term;
  3. Canada’s poor performance in supporting business and organizations to embrace innovation as a strategy for growth. The cumulative effects lead quite simply to a drying up of the pipeline that leads from education to economic growth and global competitiveness.

University and business leaders agree that this is a problem, and it’s accentuated by the failure of many of us in academe to connect more closely with industry – not, I emphasize, to allow a private sector agenda to dominate research, but rather to make sure that prospective candidates for PhD are aware of opportunities outside the academy both before and as they progress to degree completion. It should be noted that academic/industry programs such as those offered by Mitacs have proven to be quite successful, but I wonder what more we could be doing to foster skills and career development through direct partnerships with industry. These would not be limited to STEM – banks and other businesses have needs for the critical skills that can be provided by PhDs in English or Political Studies – but I’ll confine myself to STEM here with a modest suggestion for a solution.

Universities and businesses could take a page from the playbook of Canada’s Armed Forces, who have been producing their officers for decades through a combination of teaching them themselves (for instance at Royal Military College in Kingston) or subsidizing their education at other institutions. In return, they get an agreed-upon promise of years of service post-degree.

What if we extended that model to the doctoral level? Businesses and industries could either individually, or as a pool, provide four years of doctoral funding for qualified candidates to do a PhD at a research-intensive university, in return for, say, four years of employment at the firm afterward. This would solve a variety of problems at once. It would provide a badly needed alternative stream of funding for students thus enabling faculty to take on doctoral-level researchers in their labs. It would remove the problem of “what do I do when I’m finished”? It would ensure a steady supply of STEM PhDs in needed areas. It would seed businesses with managers who understand the importance of university-based research and what it can do for Canada’s economy. And it would help mitigate the most unhelpful and unrealistic notion that we in the academy have, that our PhDs must go into academe, must get a postdoc, etc., or else they have failed us and we them.

This alternative model for PhD training would need to be designed carefully. At the outset it would require that intellectual property considerations are addressed and that there is a clear understanding that the research to be undertaken is an academic requirement conducted under the mentorship of the faculty supervisor. Ideally, there should be opportunities for work-integrated learning woven into the academic program. Many programs are introducing such opportunities, and with businesses investing in supporting students they may be highly motivated to provide training that will complement the academic learning and better prepare PhDs to join the employer upon degree completion.

The current model of relations between business and the university, built mainly on patents and licenses, has served us all well for decades. But the world has changed, and we need as a country to raise our game and examine other models of integration. If we do not, we run the risk of losing the next generation of research leaders. Not just business, not just the university, but Canada as a whole will be the poorer for it.