Generate talent instead of trying to buy it

Question:How do we make best use of our science and research strengths?
on 07/07/2016

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Programs like the CERC are aimed at attracting world-class talent to Canadian universities by simply 'buying' them: $10 million to set up a dream lab at a top Canadian university. This has had mixed results. 

I think we should stop trying to buy talent and start trying to generate talent. The Big Secret of our times (pardon the hyperbole) is that genius isn't something you are born with, it is something you attain through years or dedicated practice, a good socio-economic situation, and some luck. We have plenty of bright people right here in Canada; who, with the right support, will be the superstar scientists of tomorrow - if we start to remove the barriers to their success.

There are a number of ways in which we impede the development of our young people into great scientists. Here's two to ponder:

  1. Academia isn't truly open to the working (lower) class. It is simply too expensive to get an undergrad, a graduate degree, and go through the post-doc slog if you are short on cash. Yes, people do it. But most working-class folk need to start supporting their families and themselves long before they can get the credentials they need to become an academic superstar. On top of this, Canada's 'top' universities are also its most expensive, nestled in some of the most expensive cities in Canada. This means that most working-class folk can't even afford a undergraduate education at the best universities we have, no matter how promising they are. This in turn means we have a smaller talent pool to start with (only middle class and higher). It is simple statistics to see how this stymies excellence.
  2. The teaching at the top universities, in particular the top research institutions, is on average awful. And there is no incentive for anyone in the system, from the professors to the deans and the presidents, to change this. There is no (perceived) award for holding professors accountable, for developing good metrics by which to measure teaching effectiveness, to supporting young professors to develop as teachers, or to hiring tenured faculty whose focus is on teaching and not research. When the teaching is bad, the students will learn less. Again, the fact that some students succeed *despite* poor teaching is no argument for maintaining the status quo.

If the teaching was better at our universities, we would reap the benefits:

  • Undergraduate research assistants who were knowledgeable and useful, making real contributions to the labs they work in
  • Undergraduate students who are engaged and considering the subject matter critically, challenging the researchers they interact with to push the boundaries
  • Students who are better prepared to achieve success in graduate school (at least in the coursework)
  • Graduate students with a very strong grasp of the fundamentals who can produce more independent research, and earlier, than those who aren't as well-prepared will start populating our graduate programs and creating research success
  • More students who actually enjoyed their studies and want to pursue graduate work, making their respective graduate programs more competitive and encouraging excellence
  • Fostering a collaborative, positive attitude in the classroom and on campus because the students aren't miserable
  • Many Canadian universities are publicly-funded, so I will make a moral argument here that consistently delivering a poor quality of teaching is an affront to the taxpayer
  • There are many other benefits - feel free to add them in the comments!

So how can we generate talent? The federal government needs to change the incentive structure to ensure that professors, department heads, deans, and all levels of university administration are held accountable for the quality of teaching at their school. Offering small, buy-anything (research related) grants to professors in any field who can show they are an effective teacher is one option. Another option is offering a grant which pays the salary for staff support to professors so that they can complete a meaningful, in-depth training program. Finally, offering department-wide funding to pay for tenure-track teaching faculty appointments and full-time teaching staff who oversee curriculum, create databases of notes, homework questions, exam questions, training materials, etc. 

In addition, we need to open up our top universities to working class folk, by offering loans which reflect the actual costs of the education (very different in Saskatoon vs Vancouver, etc) and more fanancial relief (in the form of tuition subsidies) to those in need. Finally, we need to incentivize departments to develop comprehensive course notes so that students can avoid the $200/book/class nightmare that adds significantly to a university education.

The primary idea is to change the incentive structure to reward good teaching and learning resource development and to create funding channels to support the development of better teachers, teaching infrastructure, and enhance access to university education for working-class kids.

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