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Israel Delegation Days 4 to 7: A Different Approach to Research?

I’ve been back for a couple of days from my expedition, with executive heads of five other Canadian universities, to Israel and the West Bank. The extremely packed schedule of meetings allowed very little time for blogging while on the trip so I am writing this continuation of my previous post after having been back for a couple of Haifa overlooking the Bahai Gardens

After 3 days visiting Jerusalem and the West Bank (see previous post re Birzeit University) the group relocated to Haifa overnight and then took a visit to the Technion, which might best be described as Israel’s counterpart to MIT or CalTech, a university focused entirely on science, engineering and medicine. It’s set up on a mountain and we had a series of presentations by the president and members of his team. Our last visit there was with a faculty member in Engineering who by coincidence is originally from Kingston (he was an LCVI grad) and who maintains a research relationship with our own Prof Ian Moore of Civil Engineering.

Following the trip to Haifa we made our way to Tel Aviv for the rest of the trip. Unlike Jerusalem, Tel Aviv is an entirely modern city, which did not exist a century ago. It is right by the sea, which adds a bit to the humidity which was absent in Jerusalem.

Our visits during the final 3 days of the trip included Tel Aviv University, where on behalf of AUCC I cosigned (with University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon) an MOU with AUCC’s counterpart body in Israel. We were hosted for the meeting by President Joseph (Yossi) Klafter, whom I previously met on my 2010 visit with then-premier Dalton McGuinty. The signing was attended by staff from the Canadian embassy, who also provided us with a briefing the following day. That was on Monday the 8th. Two days later, on the 10th, I departed from our group to make my own trip back to TAU. In the morning I met with TAU history students and faculty members (including my Oxford grad school friend and fellow 17th century British historian Prof David Katz). In the afternoon I paid another visit to President Klafter, this time with the vice-dean of TAU’s Law School, to review the exchange arrangement between our two Faculties of Law (see . MOUs can be rather empty affairs unless there is funding to make them work. Both Queen’s and TAU are highly optimistic about this one, thanks to generous funding from Queen’s alumnus (and former Rector) Jeremy Freedman and his family. There are other research relationships between Queen’s and TAU, in astrophysics, history, and biology, with the potential for others given common areas of interest.

Meeting with TAU president Joseph Klafter (2nd from right) and colleagues

Meeting with TAU president Joseph Klafter (2nd from right) and colleagues

The trip to Tel Aviv also included an afternoon at the Weizmann Institute. Named for its founder, Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, this is a remarkable institution which is not really a university but a centre for advanced research. If the Technion is Israel’s MIT, the closest analogy here would be with the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey (though unlike the IAS, the Weizmann has no non-science schools, and, unlike IAS, does have a graduate program).

Lessons of the Visit

Some common themes kept cropping up in our visits. First, given the the focus on science and technology, one might think that Israeli universities and funding bodies have given over the humanities and social sciences. One would be very wrong in making that assumption. We found robust departments and programs in those areas, and no particular bias among funding bodies. Among the most telling quotations of the trip was one we heard while visiting the Israel Science Foundation (ISF), which is a kind of omnibus combination of our SSHRCC, NSERC and CIHR, the Canadian “Tricouncil”. “We evaluate projects on their merits, not their areas. A project on Greek mythology is as likely to receive funding as one on nanotechnology”.

Secondly: Israel has famously become termed the “startup nation” thanks to a popular book by that title. So, one wonders, is there any appetite for basic, curiosity driven research? Or is all funding, within and outside universities, driven by the imperative of immediate commercialization potential?

The answer is surprising. The support for basic research is enormous. Indeed, speakers at the ISF and elsewhere scoffed at the idea that they would somehow steer research in the direction of short-term economic goals. They reminded us that none of the IT, engineering, and life sciences/biotech industry in Israel came about as a result of government policy (except a very favourable tax regime) or through steering research funding. Indeed, they could not understand why one would think differently. The ISF–and this was true at other places, even the Technion–regarded basic research as the seedbed from which commercializable products would spring naturally, and asserted that, vice versa, steering research toward short-term, applied goals would be bad policy in the long run.

Thirdly: how has the “startup” nation economic miracle occurred? Because the focus has been on “demand-pull” research and development from industry (including many global companies who have set up shop in Israel, Intel among them) rather than the “patent-push” approach we often take in Canada. Most (but not all) of the universities and institutions we visited had tech-transfer shops like Queen’s Parteq, to establish patents and build bridges to industry. The key difference is that there has also been attention to getting products across the infamous “Valley of Death” that lies between an invention and a scalable, marketable product (this is a problem that besets Canadian tech-transfer, and one which most countries have wrestled with–Germany has a slightly different approach, with its Fraunhofer Institutes, but has also largely solved the problem). The approach varied a bit from institution to institution–the Weizmann Institute for instance took the view that its faculty could not be involved in running their own spinoff companies because that would be a distraction from basic research: nevertheless they did license discoveries to companies and the revenues flowed back to the researcher and the institution. (Faculty benefit from their discoveries through revenues; IP however appears in nearly all places to belong to the institution, not the faculty member).

meeting with president of the Technion, Haifa

meeting with president of the Technion, Haifa

It’s not all perfect, of course. There are some gaps in the system. We consistently heard that government funding for major infrastructure in Israel was inadequate–there is no counterpart to the Canada Foundation for Innovation. And at least one person we visited with complained that the whole system could sometimes be a bit insular and immune to cross-fertilization from abroad (despite the large number of international research collaborations), and that pedagogy was too often stuck in a “sage-0n-the-stage” model of information-imparting rather than cultivation of a “discovery” model of teaching. And, finally, there is lingering concern about “runaway” industries–where the invention and startup business occur in Israel but then go offshore to other countries (that, however, was mitigated by the number of examples of major global companies that have, in fact, set up plants in Israel and by its hugely successful record in attracting foreign venture capital).

On the whole however, members of our group were deeply impressed by what has been accomplished economically and scientifically. Canada could profit by the example.

Visit to Israel and the West Bank 2013: Days 1-3

As I write this blog it is 830 at night in Jerusalem. The sun will be going down shortly and bring an end to the Sabbath (Shabbat). Israel’s work week begins on Sunday (which is like our Monday), and runs till Thursday. Friday is like our Saturday, and as of sundown much of the city shuts down as families gather for Shabbat celebrations.

Israel is, however, a complex country and there are plenty of non-religious people, significant Christian and especially Muslim populations, and businesses including hotels and restaurants that remain open even on Shabbat. One feature of hotels is the Shabbat elevator which runs between floors from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday in such a way that the observant do not have to push buttons, which is prohibited for them. (I am reminded of my late grandfather, an orthodox Jew who spent his life in London, England, and on Shabbat would neither use the ‘lift’ nor drive or even ride on the bus; he would walk to synagogue for services).

This is not my first trip to Israel. I was first here in 1978, when I was an undergraduate at Queen’s, and my family marked a golden wedding anniversary in Jerusalem for my grandparents Adolph and Regina. More recently, I was here 3 years ago on a delegation with then Premier Dalton McGuinty.

Currently I am on another delegation, this time with several other university heads from both AUCC and the U15 group of research intensive universities. AUCC Vice-President Christine Tausig Ford is on the trip, as is U15 Executive Director Suzanne Corbeil. For most of the group (the exceptions are myself and St Francis Xavier University’s Sean Riley) it is a first-ever visit. I’m back in large measure to pursue some of the linkages that were made on the 2010 visit and to reconnect with academics, administrators and researchers I met then. On Monday I will join with University of Calgary President Elizabeth Cannon in signing on behalf of the AUCC a Memorandum of Understanding with the University of Tel Aviv. Queen’s also has a new bilateral MOU with the University of Tel Aviv’s Law School, and I will be spending time there later this week.

Day 1 (Thursday July 4)

We arrived via Toronto about noon on Thursday and met our guide Michal (an Israeli) and tour coordinator Dylan (who is based in Toronto). After a 12 hour flight nobody was especially fresh, so the first afternoon and evening allowed some cleanup time at the hotel and then a walk through the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem before an early(ish) dinner.

Day 2 (Friday July 5)

The day began with a briefing on entrepreneurial activity in Israel, famously described in a recent book as the ‘startup nation’. There is a huge amount of R and D here, and venture capital is quite easy to raise. Over the past 20 years the country has become a leading high-tech location, second only in some areas to Silicon Valley or perhaps Boston (which I recently described in the Queen’s Alumni Review) in its production of successful–and, necessarily, some failed–startups). Many foreign companies such as Intel have purchased Israeli startups and set up plants here.

The day included a visit to the downtown market (a sea of people!) at lunch and then a walk through the rest of Jerusalem’s old city, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and a visit to the Western Wall. Our guide, Michal, is a fount of historical and local knowledge.

The heart of the day was my first visit to Yad Vashem, the complex devoted to Holocaust studies which now includes the relatively new National Holocaust museum. Designed by Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, the Museum proper begins with a narrative film (silent) montage depicting pre-war European Jewish communities and life, an image that gradually fades from view as the visitor progresses through the various galleries of the triangular-shaped building. Among the displays I noted was the carnage wreaked by the Nazis on Tarnow, a town in Galicia (now part of Poland) from which my paternal great-grandfather emigrated to Britain in the 1890s. I have to admit that this visit, perhaps unsurprisingly, overshadowed pretty much everything else I saw that day.

In the garden at Yad Vashem

In the garden at Yad Vashem

Day 3 (Saturday July 6)

Today included a float in the Dead Sea

a market stall in Jerusalem on Friday around 1 pm

a market stall in Jerusalem on Friday around 1 pm

and a walk through the Masada, both of which I had done on my 1978 visit. The business part of the day included a trip to the West Bank, specifically to one of the Area A regions (under Palestinian civil and military control) to visit Birzeit University.

Sighted this ibex on the wall outside the base of Masada

Sighted this ibex on the wall outside the base of Masada

This was my 2nd visit to Birzeit; after the last visit we signed an MOU to increase graduate student mobility. Birzeit is widely regarded as one of the best if not the best Palestinian university, with an enrolment of about 10,000 students. The buildings are mainly relatively new and largely privately funded. We were able to meet the Dean of Engineering, Dean of Grad Studies, the VP Academic (whom I met in 201o) and the President. Our host was Canada’s representative to the Palestinian Authority. Birzeit is starting up a new PhD program in social sciences and has an interest in developing an entrepreneurship culture among its students. It also has a keen interest in having Canadian academics spend some time there offering courses, which can be given in English and over a short period of 1-2 weeks. Associate Vice-Principal (Research) Dr Cynthia Fekken, who is also on this trip (and is depicted below having a brief ride atop a West Bank camel) will be following up on this MOU once we return to Canada.

Cynthia Fekken hitches a ride on a camel

Cynthia Fekken hitches a ride on a camel

Tomorrow we get much more heavily into the business meetings, so watch this blog space for updates every couple of days.

The importance of counting students

On Friday, 19 April I sent the following letter to Mayor and Council.


In light of the recent debate about whether to count post-secondary students in the proposed new electoral boundaries in Kingston, I believe that, as Principal of Queen’s, it is important for me to weigh in on the debate. The question at hand, which has caught the attention of many and engaged the community in an important discussion is this: Are post-secondary students residents of Kingston, or are they transients staying long enough to get a degree before moving elsewhere?

As a destination for students, Queen’s is responsible for their education, and health and wellness while they are studying here. We consider students to be members not only of the Queen’s community but also of the Kingston community. We actively encourage them to get involved in the city in which they live, work and volunteer. Our students respond by doing just that, in a variety of important ways.

Students maintain the right to vote in municipal elections as long as they are registered, just as any other resident of the city. While Queen’s administration, and I personally, represent the institution at large, and student government representatives maintain their own relationships with Council, individual students also rely on and deserve representation from members of Council. The fact that students move frequently and change addresses from year to year can and has presented challenges to both university officials and city staff. The university is committed to working with students and the city to ensure that everyone is counted. In the past, the Alma Mater Society has run campaigns to encourage students to get out and vote, and I am sure it will do so again for the next municipal election.

How to count a student population is an extremely complicated issue. The federal census normally counts students where they reside permanently, most likely with their parents in a different city or province. The Municipal Property Assessment Corporation is responsible for enumerating residents who live in the municipality. Again, this is not an easy task given that the majority of our students move frequently and landlords may not always report the names of their tenants. How the city determines its electoral boundaries and who is counted in a district is within its own purview; however, I believe it is extremely important to consider students who live in this city when assessing population numbers for electoral purposes.

Students bring an enormous amount of talent and energy to the communities in which they live and if the City of Kingston would like to see students remain in the area after graduation, it is important to count them now and make them feel part of the community.

The university has an excellent relationship with the City of Kingston and we will continue to work with Council to address the needs of the university and ultimately our students. It is important that a solution is found that will reconcile the city’s need for accurate information on the size of electoral districts with our students’ clear desire to be counted among the electorate for the districts in which they live.

I encourage councillors to find a resolution that will count our students among Kingston’s citizens.





Freedom of Speech

Although I am out of town on business I was advised of a situation that took place on April 2, where a display erected by a Queen’s student group was removed from the JDUC by Campus Security. The display, titled “Queen’s Free Speech Wall,” included racial slurs and hate speech that, quite simply, have no place on our campus.

Freedom of speech in Canada is protected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a fundamental freedom. The very nature of the subject will usually stir controversy as freedom of speech is protected, but it is not absolute. I am a proponent of the right to free speech, particularly in an academic environment. Having said that I believe that all members of our community have a right to feel safe and respected while on our campus. Demeaning each other based on race, religion or any other affiliation will not be tolerated. I believe that our students, faculty and staff have the right to be a part of this community without fear, discrimination or harassment of any kind.

We have a duty to foster a safe and inclusive environment, one in which ideas can be expressed and challenged in a meaningful and respectful way.

I understand the group has been permitted to erect a new display. I trust this one will celebrate freedom of speech without infringing on the rights of others and, more importantly, hurting or excluding members of our community.

Time-to-completion and extensions for graduate students

Yesterday I received an open letter regarding a topic of great importance to many of our graduate students: time-to-completion and extension policies. I want to address some of the issues raised in that letter in hopes that it will alleviate some of the concerns our graduate students have about this matter.

Since last September, the Graduate Studies Executive Council (GSEC) has been working to revise our current policies, which had not been updated in more than a decade. The policy changes that have been proposed will be voted on by the GSEC at its March 14 meeting. It won’t be, however, the first time these issues are raised: the proposed policy changes have been discussed at all Queen’s faculty councils and committees, with feedback provided directly to the School of Graduate Studies (SGS) and to GSEC.

I think it’s important to make a few things clear, particularly in light of the concern I understand these proposed changes have been causing in the graduate student community.  Most importantly (and the issue I fear has been the most misconstrued) is that the proposed policies do not impose a hard limit on graduate students’ time-to-completion, or make extensions difficult to obtain. What will change is that PhD students will be required to receive an extension – which can be granted by their department – beginning in their fifth year. In the past, students did not have to obtain an extension until Year 7 – a timeline that was the longest in the province.

There is no doubt that the question of time-to-completion can affect a student’s work, finances, and job opportunities. It also has an impact on our supervisors, and our ability to accept new students. We feel it is in everyone’s interest to encourage timely progression, while keeping in mind, of course, that there can be a number of circumstances that may prevent a student from completing his or her degree in the minimum required time. That is why extensions are available, with the approval of the department in the first instance and the SGS should a subsequent extension be warranted.

Annual mandatory progress updates, which were initiated last year, are also designed to help both students and faculty members better assess how students are doing, identify any barriers that have impacted the research and/or research progress, and to set goals and objectives for the next year. This formal process encourages conversation between student and supervisor, and ensures that we are supporting students in a systematic way much earlier in the process than we may have before.

The SGS has also been working to expand its support services to better help students with time-to-completion issues. Expanding Horizons, a series of workshops and seminars to support the academic, personal, and professional success of our graduate students, along with their Dissertation Boot Camps, aimed at providing the resources to accelerate the writing process for students, can all be of great benefit.

The key, ultimately, is in striking the right balance between allowing students to pursue original, carefully executed research, while ensuring that research is possible to complete within the time allocated for a doctoral degree. We hope these new parameters will help to provide some additional structure for that process.

Ultimately, this university is committed to working with our students to ensure that degrees are completed in an efficient manner, and that extensions are not onerous to obtain when they are needed. These policies, if they are passed, will not interfere with that commitment.