A univer­sity is like an ice­berg. Here’s how …


The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION - Howard El­liott

Most Hamil­to­ni­ans, un­less they are bliss­fully un­plugged, have a sense of how im­por­tant ma­jor in­sti­tu­tions such as our hos­pi­tals, col­lege and univer­sity are to our com­mu­nity.

Take McMaster Univer­sity for ex­am­ple. On the sur­face, it’s im­pres­sive. Twenty-five thou­sand un­der­grad stu­dents. Some­thing like 4,000 post­grad­u­ates. Six aca­demic fa­cil­i­ties. A ma­jor pres­ence down­town. A ma­jor cen­tre of re­search in key ar­eas such as health sciences and en­gi­neer­ing.

But im­pres­sive as those factoids are, they don’t tell the whole story. Not by a long-shot.

The in­flu­ence of ma­jor in­sti­tu­tional play­ers like Mac goes much fur­ther than many peo­ple re­al­ize. This is true, to one de­gree or an­other, of all our key in­sti­tu­tions. But today let’s talk about Mac.

The Spec­ta­tor’s Natalie Pad­don this week told a story that il­lus­trates the point.

Some­time in the next year or so, Mac and its part­ners will bring for­ward 40,000-square feet of space de­signed to help re­searchers turn their re­search into mar­ket-ready busi­ness and in­no­va­tion. Call this an in­cu­ba­tor, if you want. It pro­vides a safe and nour­ish­ing en­vi­ron­ment for re­searchers and en­trepreneurs to spend time bring­ing re­search to mar­ket. Typ­i­cally, these star­tups are small, pos­si­bly a hand­ful of peo­ple or even less. Left on their own, they would strug­gle, es­pe­cially since this sort of work is nec­es­sar­ily bur­dened by reg­u­la­tions, clin­i­cal tri­als and ad­min­is­tra­tive de­mands. With few re­sources and lim­ited fi­nances, some, per­haps even many, might fail.

But put them in an in­cu­ba­tor to cush­ion the hard­ships and com­plex­i­ties. Then put them in a sup­port­ive en­vi­ron­ment with the right tech­nol­ogy and in­fra­struc­ture with a bunch of other star­tups. They share the cost of ad­min­is­tra­tion. They can share the cost of tech­nol­ogy, which could eas­ily be pro­hib­i­tive to in­di­vid­ual star­tups.

This is hardly a unique recipe. It is al­ready at play in some Hamil­ton in­dus­trial parks and at the McMaster In­no­va­tion Park. But we don’t nec­es­sar­ily link it with an in­sti­tute of higher learn­ing.

Some of the busi­nesses will grad­u­ate from in­cu­ba­tor to mar­ket. They will pro­vide jobs, hope­fully lo­cally, and they will be jobs of today and the fu­ture, not of yes­ter­day. They will pay taxes, eas­ing the bur­den on the res­i­den­tial ratepayer. The univer­sity, and its part­ners, could right­fully be de­scribed as proud par­ents.

In this way, Mac and other key in­sti­tu­tions are like ice­bergs. What’s above the sur­face is im­pres­sive enough, but what you don’t see can be even more so. The univer­sity isn’t per­fect. There are so-called town and-gown chal­lenges. But when we con­sider the over­all value of a player like Mac, we need to con­sider what is be­hind the scenes as well as in plain sight.

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