Research Chair ethics questioned

By Nathan Dyck

A new Chair created at the University of Calgary with funds from NOVA Chemical Corporation raises questions regarding the use of corporate money on campus, and the work of graduate students to benefit corporate interests.

"NOVA chemicals and the rest of the industry will benefit from this research," said Kathryn Ward, Public affairs Manager for NOVA.

The S. Robert Blair Chair, named after a former NOVA CEO, was made possible with an endowment from the company. Chair recipient Dr. Warren Piers admitted, "NOVA would probably get first right of interest," referring to his research. He expects that between 30-40 per cent of the work done by his graduate students will be in areas directly related to NOVA.

University Media Relations Co-Ordinator Andrew Wark said the school is "look[ing] forward to closer co-operation with industry." This theme of co-operation is standing U of C policy and is indicative of many other Chairs and co-op programs that are hosted.

U of C Dean of Science Michael Boorman has worked with another major petrochemical company and acknowledged that corporations seek to "leverage their money so that more research gets done for less money."

He denies that the case of this Chair could be seen as creating a University arm of NOVA Chemicals. "There is a fine line where it [industry-University co-operation] would constitute a violation [of impartiality]."

Ethics involved in financing university projects are always a hotly debated topic between skeptics and corporate apologists. It is a question the Dean must deal with.

He stressed that the university is "very careful about engaging in projects in which there are restrictions [on a graduate’s work]." It took several years to reach an agreement that was acceptable to NOVA and the university. "Many corporations help universities pursue research frontiers that industry may not otherwise take a chance on," he said.

Boorman emphasized the symbiotic relationship that the University pursues with industry. A bursary given by corporations or other private interests often covers only the Chair’s salary. In this case, the money the University received, along with University and government contributions, allowed the University to create a "modern, viable research lab."

"The lab will be doing research into much more basic fundamentals that may have eventual underpinnings in commercial applications… precompetitive research," said Boorman.

This Chair is appointed for a five-year term, and is overseen by a steering committee, which includes University and NOVA members. There is an option for renewal on the appointment "if NOVA believed its money was being well spent," according to Boorman.

The chair will focus on the plastics (polymer) industry. A polymer is a substance created by linking smaller molecules through a catalytic reaction, making larger molecules. The catalysts being examined are substances that promote specific chemical reactions or processes by speeding them up or reducing the energy requirement.

Leave a comment