Rethink research, Bélanger urges

DANIEL McCABE | Last spring, Senate passed 22 resolutions dealing with different aspects of the University. The focus was on how McGill should respond to the changing times and the resolutions were meant to serve as a guidepost for the next several years.

While he thinks the resolutions made some vital points, Pierre Bélanger, the vice-principal (research) and dean of graduate studies, believes they gave short shrift to a couple of pretty essential McGill activities.

Namely, research and graduate studies.

So Bélanger is doing his bit to get people thinking about the future of his own faculty. He has released a discussion paper entitled "Maintaining McGill as a Research University" and posted it on the Internet ( A pair of Graduate Faculty Council policy committees will soon begin considering the document and deliberating on how McGill should deal with research and graduate studies as it approaches a new century. Bélanger is inviting all interested parties to have their say.

The vice-principal says there's plenty to think about. For instance, what can the University do to support the infrastructure that world-class research requires?

It's all well and good to have top-of-the-line computers in the labs, says Bélanger, but the best computers in the world won't be of much benefit if McGill can't afford to pay technicians to operate the machines.

And if the University lacks the money to buy service contracts for the machines, the computers will be completely useless if they ever break down.

Bélanger says that the upcoming competition for funds from the new Canadian Foundation for Innovation should result in about $100 million in support for research infrastructure for McGill over the next five years.

But that money will be restricted to certain things, such as the purchase of large-scale research equipment. Taking care of that machinery will cost "about 15% of the original purchase price each year [when you factor in technical support and service contracts]. I don't want to guess where that money is going to come from."

Another area that urgently requires additional funding is the support of graduate students, says Bélanger. Master's students in the social sciences and humanities have been especially affected by recent cuts to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. SSHRC currently offers them no assistance. That leaves only FCAR grants and TAships  which are also dwindling because of budget cuts  to support these students.

"TAships are pretty much it as far as the support we're able to offer some students and some of the TAships are pretty thin." If McGill wants to attract top-flight master's students, it will have to figure out how to help them finance their education.

Bélanger is also looking for feedback on the issue of recruitment. He suspects the University might want to consider paying more attention to how graduate students are recruited to McGill.

"Associate Vice-Principal (Graduate Studies) Martha Crago quizzed the departments about this over the summer and we were surprised to find out that many of our graduate students come from McGill  they did their bachelor's degrees here. It seems to be a much higher percentage than I would have thought. We want the best graduate students from all over the world, not just the best graduate students from McGill."

Bélanger realizes that this isn't an ideal time to be asking for more money for either research or graduate studies. "If more money is directed to these activities, it will mean less money for something else."

Still, he insists the discussion has to take place.

"I'm not trying to build an empire," says Bélanger. "If people think that these things should be supported, but that the additional funds should go directly to the individual faculties, that's okay with me. Or people might decide that we just can't afford to take resources away from other areas to pay for these things. That's all right too. But we have to be aware of what we're doing. We have to be aware of what the consequences would be. We can't sweep these things under the rug as if they didn't exist."