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Opinion: Big Tech's support for Canadian universities risks compromising research integrity – The Globe and Mail


Vass Bednar is the executive director of McMaster University’s master of public policy in digital society program and an adjunct professor of political science.

Online news publication The Intercept detailed in 2019 how Big Tech manipulates U.S. academia to avoid regulation. The analysis indicated that some large tech companies hire and fund academic experts as a strategy to get around restrictions on controversial technologies. No comparable analysis of this phenomenon has existed in Canada – until now.

Graduate students from McMaster University’s Master of Public Policy in Digital Society program recently contributed research to the just-launched Regulatory Capture Lab, which is co-funded by the Centre for Digital Rights and Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. While the initiative’s main focus was to examine the relationship(s) between the largest technology firms and the federal government, the research also explored “academic capture,” asking whether Big Tech’s support for Canadian academics and universities risks compromising the integrity of research.

The initiative found that the largest technology firms are interacting with Canadian campuses in similar ways. Its initial analysis offers a comprehensive perspective on how academic spaces may be exploited by firms while also benefiting from the opportunities that investments can unlock. Big Tech’s continuing integration into the ivory tower forms a sort of playbook on how to “launder” self-serving narratives through sponsored research, lend lobbyists extra credibility through appointments and invest in the career pathways of promising young talent.

Big Tech’s presence in the academic world takes the form of sponsored professorships or chairs, residency programs or contributions to artificial intelligence institutes. Tech companies also sponsor student competitions and hackathons to source talent and ideas. They frequently cover tuition for promising graduate students in relevant fields, and facilitate their working with in-house researchers, engineers and developers. Sometimes companies invest in scholarships or co-op programs for students who are then hired upon graduation. In this way, scholastic support can be viewed as an R&D investment.

Occasionally academics themselves concurrently occupy intellectual and private-sector spaces through cross-appointments, which may raise questions around the ownership of intellectual property. This straddling is exemplified by the godfather of AI, Geoffrey Hinton – who divides his time between Google and the University of Toronto – and mimicked by other scholars.

Many firms engage in broader campus partnerships. Consider Apple’s partnership with the University Health Network in Toronto that looks at how the Apple Watch can provide early detection of heart failure. While wearables are not regulated as “medical devices” by Health Canada, this partnership lends them credibility as a consumer product by embedding them in medical research.

The new norm that blends scholastic spaces with private participation is perhaps best exemplified by prominent Canadian AI Institutes: CIFAR is partly funded by Facebook, and many of CIFAR’s research chairs are involved with top AI companies. The Vector Institute is partly supported by Google, and the MILA research hub has a $7-million investment from Facebook.

Ultimately, funding research is an exercise of power; using private funds to achieve public influence. These activities are notable because the findings of collaborations between scholars and technology companies may be unreliable. Companies may fund research that occupies an ambiguous policy space, such as Amazon’s Voice Technology Accelerator Program at the University of Waterloo. They may also be supporting initiatives – like the AI superclusters – that are overseen by one of the key ministries engaged in major regulatory activities. This risks inadvertently endearing certain firms to government decision-makers who are also responsible for regulating them.

In some instances, corporations may exploit the credibility of academics to spread corporate narratives or sign public letters of support. Universities risk losing leading academics as part of brain drain to the sector, while pretenure academics may be reluctant to critique firms in their research until they have secured tenure.

We are not without checks and balances. The guidance when accepting sponsored research at a Canadian university is robust, and contracts strictly stipulate that a funder cannot influence the final results. However, the option of independent consulting can be opaque. Typically, up to 20 per cent of an academic’s time may be devoted to such work – about one business day a week. This option is set through university-specific policies. Such flexibility allows many academics to use their university affiliation for personal benefit, and though this must be disclosed to a superior on an annual basis, it is not made public.

More research will be valuable. Pushing for greater transparency through disclosure, as exemplified through the American Tech Transparency Project will be productive. Others have advocated for “academic engagement” roles at Big Tech firms, which could lead to published papers using company data.

Indeed, many academics have called for greater direct collaboration with large technology firms in the wake of Frances Haugen’s whistle-blowing that disclosed thousands of documents from Facebook to public authorities. These kinds of engagements could shift the dynamic away from firms sponsoring research that directly serves their interest or narratives and toward facilitating more independent research using data from major social-media platforms.

Over all, these potentially extractive relationships between postsecondary institutions and large technology firms are understudied in Canada. It may be that they are so modest as to not warrant attention. It may also be that they are far more subtle and sophisticated than we can appreciate at first glance. Perhaps the real questions are: which scholars might take this work on, who or what will fund it, and whether there will be implicit ramifications for their University’s Advancement offices as a result?

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