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Knowledge for an Ecologically Sustainable Future?

Innovation Policy and Alberta Universities

Knowledge for an Ecologically
Sustainable Future?

As scientists and Indigenous elders have been telling us for decades, life on this planet as it has evolved over millions of years is on the brink of a precipice. Planetary ecosystems are threatened with collapse by the pressures of humans’ appropriation of nature and their production of wastes, pollutants, and greenhouse gases. The urgency of making a rapid transition from economies based on fossil fuels and ever-growing consumption to net-zero-carbon economies that leave room for thriving biodiversity and make possible cultural diversity and secure, meaningful lives for Earth’s human inhabitants simply cannot be overstated. If ever there were a time for universities to assume a leadership role in providing the knowledge needed for socio-ecological change, this is surely that moment.

Alberta has entrenched political, institutional, and cultural obstacles that must be overcome to achieve a transition to an ecologically sustainable and socially just way of living together. At the same time, Alberta is also one of the world’s hopes for food production in the climate of the future, and for the preservation of spaces for remaining wildlife. We have exceptional opportunities for generating renewable energy, and for developing the technologies and materials the world needs to live sustainably. The Indigenous peoples that have lived on these lands for millennia have much to teach settler cultures about the relationships of kinship and respect for limits that are foundational to ecologically sustainable societies. Our universities have enormous capacities, drawn from all corners, to contribute to ecological and social sustainability in all their dimensions—both in Alberta and globally. The solutions lie not only in technologies, or in the infrastructures needed to scale these up quickly, but in institutional and cultural changes. We need to bring to bear all our diverse knowledges and experiences to make this shift—and we need to do it quickly. These are the possibilities that give hope and inspiration to our young people, and that many university researchers are committed to realizing.

All universities have leadership roles to play in this great transition. Alberta’s universities are situated in a jurisdiction that has been for decades highly reliant for revenue and employment on the extraction of the fossil fuels that are forcing climate destabilization. Our universities helped to develop the technologies that made exploitation of the oil sands possible, but we have known for decades that greenhouse gas emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels are driving climate change. We have also known that oil and gas exploitation in the province has cumulative environmental and social costs— above all, for Indigenous communities whose traditional territories have been devastated by the expansion of the extractive industries. How, then, has knowledge production in Alberta’s universities been responding, over time, to the growing recognition of the need to create a decolonizing, post-carbon path of development?

There are many ways of answering this question, such as tracing the evolution of curriculum and degree programs, making an environmental audit of university investment portfolios, or measuring efforts to reduce the environmental footprints of buildings and utilities used. In this report, we examine the type of knowledge production that has been prioritized within the universities by researchers and administrators, as well as by the agencies that fund research and technology development (R&D). We evaluate these types of knowledge production in relation to fossil-fuel or post-carbon paths of development. Research and development may serve to deepen our “carbon lock-in” by finding new reservoirs of fossil fuels or developing new technologies for their extraction. Even the research that aims to reduce the costs of production or transportation of fossil fuels or to remediate the environmental harms of carbon extraction may be used to prolong our reliance on these fuels while reassuring us that these are “clean” or “sustainable” sources of energy. In contrast, research that seeks to develop low-carbon, renewable sources of energy, environmentally sustainable substitutes for harmful chemicals and materials, planning and building designs for cities with net-zero-carbon footprints, sustainable agriculture, water conservation, green jobs, new forms of ecological governance, and a host of other needed technologies and reforms, puts us on a different path—a path of ecological and social sustainability.

One way to find out what kind of research is being done in our universities in relation to energy transition, climate change, sustainable agriculture, and related environmental areas, would be to send out a survey to all the continuing academic staff and ask them to report. Assuming that we received an excellent response and had the resources to analyze and code thousands of reports, this method could give us a very good picture of the terrain of current research. Even if feasible, his method would, however, give us a snapshot only of current research activity. We wanted to see if there have been any significant changes in direction over a longer time period. The timeframe of this study covers almost 20 years, from 1997/98 to 2016/17 (depending on the data source)—a period that is concurrent with the growth of investment in the oil sands, multiple scientific reports on climate change and rounds of climate policy, as well as other developments that have shaped Alberta and Canada’s “innovation” policies. The priorities set out in government innovation policies are important drivers of the kinds of R&D performed in the universities.

To answer our research question about the contributions of the knowledge being produced in Alberta’s universities to ecological and social sustainability, we looked for data sources that we could trace back to at least 1999/00 and that would allow us to classify both researchers and research projects according to a fairly fine-grained set of criteria. These data were available from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), and the Alberta Science and Research Investments Program (via its annual reports). They were supplemented by many other sources, as described in greater detail in the report. These data, however, cover only those researchers and projects that received funding from government agencies, giving us a picture of externally funded research. It is important to note that a great deal of research is carried out in universities that is not externally funded, either because of the nature of the research or the availability of funds “internal” to the university. The picture we are able to provide in this report, then, is necessarily partial, but it does show us what kinds of research governments and corporations (via partnerships or endowments) are prioritizing.

The introduction explains the objectives of the report in greater detail, outlines the scope of the study and its limits, and lists the data sources.

The second section maps the research priorities of the national funding agencies regarding energy, environment, sustainable agriculture and forestry, water issues, or other areas of research related to sustainable development. We identify the funding priorities—and changes in these over time—by observing the numbers of researchers working in selected areas as well as the flows of research funding to these areas. Our focus in this section is the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary, although we also examined CFI funding for projects at the University of Lethbridge. This section further documents the orientation of federal research funding toward university-industry-government partnerships and the heavy weight of corporations in the oil and gas sector in such partnerships.

In the third section of the report, we turn to provincial funding for energy and environment-related research. Here, we reconstruct the funding priorities of the Alberta Science and Research Investments Program (ASRIP) and of the innovation agencies and funds that finance government, university, and corporate-based R&D.

Section 4 describes the many research centres, institutes, research chairs, consortia, and networks that have been established since the 1970s in the areas of energy and environment. We identify which ones have received government and/or corporate investment and have been viewed as central to the province’s economic development, and which have had to seek support from other sources. In this section we also document the dense network of connections among the corporate sponsors, university-based researchers, and government agencies involved in fossil-fuels-related R&D, and the significance of these relationships for knowledge production within the universities.

Section 5 reviews data from the provincial government and Statistics Canada that help us to construct at least a partial picture of corporate investment in energy R&D, and the implications of this out-sourced investment for the orientation of university research.

Finally, Section 6 summarizes the cumulative data on funding priorities by areas of research, highlights the evidence of changes of direction over time, and discusses the implications of our findings for the universities’ role as producers of the knowledge needed to advance ecologically and socially sustainable development in Alberta.

The report documents—for the first time using systematized rather than only anecdotal data—the allocation of research investment in the areas of energy, environment, and sustainability, at the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary. The findings confirm the heavy weighting of this investment toward fossil-fuels-related research and technology development centred in the faculties of engineering. Highlights of the findings include:

  • Of the NSERC funding to energy, environment, and sustainable development areas of research at the universities of Alberta and Calgary since 1999, 63 per cent has gone to fossil-fuels-related (FFR) research. Only 11 per cent has gone to alternative energies, and less than 3 per cent to sustainable development research.
  • The number of NSERC-funded researchers in FFR-areas at the universities of Alberta and Calgary grew from 50 in 1999/00 to 138 in 2015/16, while during the same period the number working on renewable energies grew from 0 to 23 and the number of environmental researchers increased from 47 to 105.
  • Of the CFI funding awarded in these areas to the universities of Alberta, Calgary, and Lethbridge, since 1998, the largest recipient was fossil-fuels-related research ($41.7 million, followed by environmental research ($39.2 million) and alternative energies ($9 million).
  • The provincial government has committed approximately $3.4 billion to corporate tax and royalty credits for R&D in the energy sector since 2004.
  • Another $3 billion in provincial funding for centres, institutes, or research chairs dedicated to fossil-fuels-related R&D has been documented for the period since 1997.
  • The provincial funding of $6.4 billion for fossil-fuels-related R&D compares to $241 million spent on R&D in renewable energies, energy efficiency and conservation, fuel cells, and biofuels research, and $190 million on environmental and sustainable development research.
  • Forty-five per cent of the Climate Change Emissions Management Fund’s disbursements to corporations for R&D since 2010 have been allocated to fossil-fuels-related projects.
  • Of the 25 Canada Research Chairs funded by the NSERC since 2000 (at the universities of Alberta and Calgary) in the area of energy, 16 were in fossil-fuels-related research. By comparison, 11 CRCs were created in environmental areas.
  • Of the 36 Industrial Research Chairs created in the Energy domain over the same period, 35 were in fossil-fuels-related research. Only three IRCs were created in the environmental area.
  • Another 16 research chairs or professorships were established between 2005 and 2013 by energy corporation endowments, with these, too, focussing on fossil fuels research. Only a handful of endowed research chairs in environment-related areas were found.
  • Going back as far as 1990 we found only nine centres in the two universities in environment or sustainability areas, and these have relied primarily on internal (university) funding. Only a handful of these are in operation today. On the other hand, we found 26 centres whose central focus is on energy (primarily, the oil sands), and 22 of these are operating today. At neither university is there a centre or institute for sustainable development, or an “initiative” with external funding on the scale routinely provided to the energy-area initiatives.
  • We identified 25 consortia or networks in the energy area integrating university researchers, corporate sector scientists or managers, and government agencies, dating back to the AERI/ARC Core Industry Research Program created in the 1980s. Most of the research they conduct is related to fossil fuels reservoir exploration, extraction, processing, and transportation technologies. The handful of research networks in the environmental or sustainability areas were, for the most part, reliant upon internal university support and were not partnered with corporations or innovation agencies.
  • In recent years there has been some increase in investment in renewable energy technologies on the part of Emissions Reduction Alberta and ASRIP, although these investments are still greatly outweighed by those in the oil and gas sectors.
  • Water issues (important in Alberta in the context of climate change) are beginning to receive more support from Alberta Innovates.
  • Funding for sustainable agricultural research from the innovation agencies is almost non-existent.
  • No comprehensive record of industry funding of university research (by researcher or project title, or even by department or faculty) is publicly available. Statistics Canada did a survey of energy industry in-house and outsourced R&D spending in 2013/14, which found that $115 million was outsourced to “Canadian organizations.” Ninety-seven per cent of this amount was spent on fossil-fuels-related R&D. While $115 million is a very small fraction of the industry’s total R&D spending in that year ($2.3 billion reported), it constitutes a substantial source of funding for the universities competing for a share of this pie. This $115 million is almost half the amount disbursed by NSERC for fossil-fuels-related R&D to the universities of Alberta and Calgary over the entire period from 1999 to 2016, and twice the amount disbursed by the CFI for fossil-fuels-related R&D over the entire period from 1999 to 2016. Statistics Canada data for 2014–2017 also show minimal industry investment in renewable energy technologies, hydrogen and fuel cell technologies, or energy efficiency technologies, compared to the amounts invested in fossil-fuels-related R&D.

Overall, some small steps are being taken in the direction of greater support from the provincial and federal innovation agencies for renewable energies, water research, and greenhouse gas mitigation technologies. The federal TriCouncil agencies are also facilitating cross-disciplinary grant applications in such areas as “environment and agriculture,” “sustainable, resilient communities,” “governance and institutions,” and “environmental influences on population health” (SSHRC 2016). Some space may be opening for interdisciplinary, ecological knowledge production as governments come to grips with the impacts of climate change on essential infrastructure, insurance costs, food production, and global demand for fossil fuels. However, it is evident from our research that, until now, the interests of the fossil fuel industries have predominated in government funding of energy-related research, and that other dimensions of a sustainable development research agenda—such as sustainable food production—have hardly been on their radar (at least in Alberta).

In addition to being industry-driven, the innovation discourse and agenda are heavily technocratic and oriented toward the production of commercializable knowledge by researchers in engineering and natural sciences. By definition, then, the kinds of knowledge produced in other sectors of the universities by social science, humanities, and fine arts scholars—while also critically important to building an ecologically and socially sustainable future—fall outside of the “innovation” framework and are significantly underfunded. Moreover, the “sustainability” work being done in some parts of the universities related to climate change increasingly conflicts with the fossil-fuel-industry-driven work that is being carried out in other parts of the universities. Thus, the universities are producing contradictory knowledge and are divided in their interpretations of research and teaching that serve the public good.

The influence of corporations in the carbon-extractive and allied economic sectors on the research priorities of universities is visible in the presence of industry representatives on the boards of research institutes or university boards of governors, as well as in the corporate names attached to research labs, buildings, schools, or scholarship funds. However, our research suggests that less visible forms of influence on the production of knowledge in our universities are equally (if not more) important. Corporations have a privileged role in determining what will be funded by governmental agencies like NSERC, the National Research Council (NRC), Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), CFI, and Alberta Innovates by virtue of their economic power and relationship to the state.

Many university administrators, like politicians and corporate leaders, have adopted a sustainable development discourse that views technological innovation as the preeminent solution to the conflict between fossil-fuels-driven economic growth and the protection of the ecosystems that are the foundation of human life and biodiversity. This discourse has become a key element of what some scholars are now calling “the new climate denialism,” in which the existence of climate change is acknowledged, but its urgency is downplayed, and incremental, market-friendly reforms, combined with investments in technology, are represented as constituting a sufficient response. Just as the governments of Alberta and Canada have pursued an incoherent two-track strategy of subsidizing fossil fuels production while implementing carbon taxes with the aim of reducing downstream greenhouse gas emissions, university administrators have presented their institutions’ research on oil sands extraction and hydraulic fracturing as advancing “cleaner, more cost-effective ways of extracting energy” that are proceeding alongside research on “low carbon” energy systems.

Administrators may see this balancing act as a strategy for positioning their institutions to benefit from the external funding offered by the innovation agencies and the private sector. Substantial constituencies within Alberta’s universities are now heavily—though not irrevocably—invested in fossil-fuels-related research. However, the conflicts over the mission of the university in relation to the climate crisis and the public interest (now being played out in fossil fuel divestment campaigns as well as struggles around research and teaching priorities) are not reducible to the political views of individual deans or university presidents, nor to differences of values between, for example, “engineers” and “liberal arts” scholars. Rather, these trenches have been dug and maintained by the interests and ideologies that governments have made central in the mandates of the innovation institutions.

This report is part of the Corporate Mapping Project, a research and public engagement initiative investigating the power of the fossil fuel industry in Western Canada. The CMP is jointly led by the University of Victoria, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and Parkland Institute. This research was supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Résumé du rapport aussi disponible en français.

ISBN: 978-1-894949-74-3

Laura Cabral

Laura Cabral holds a degree in Environmental Studies from the Université de Sherbrooke and an M.Sc. in Civil Engineering (Transport) from the University of Alberta. She is currently employed as a planner with Toole Design where she is engaged in helping clients create people-first transportation policies and street designs.

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Laurie Adkin

Laurie Adkin is a political economist and professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta. Her main areas of research and teaching are political ecology, the populist radical right in Europe, and Alberta politics. Since 2002, she has studied the formation of climate change policy in Alberta and Canada. She is the author of Politics of Sustainable Development: Citizens, Unions, and the Corporations (1998), and editor and co-author of Environmental Conflict and Democracy in Canada (2009), and First World Petro-Politics: The Political Ecology and Governance of Alberta (2016). Her recent work has focused on the political ecology of knowledge production in Alberta’s universities and on innovation policy and discourse as responses to the global climate crisis.

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