Opening up to the world

Queen’s could have a global impact on education and improve its sustainability by widening the scope of its research

Increasing access to online journal article databases would help Queen’s researchers.
Increasing access to online journal article databases would help Queen’s researchers.

When I was being recruited, Queen’s University was pitched as the “Harvard of the North.” There are many very smart people at Queen’s with a lot of good ideas.

With these intellectual gifts come responsibilities—one of which is to share our research, teaching and learning as much as possible.

I therefore propose that we take four steps to open Queen’s up to the world.

First, the University should adopt an open access motion like the one passed unanimously by the faculty of the Stanford University School of Education. This motion commits the faculty to making copies of their peer-reviewed journal articles public and freely available through an open archive. We already have our own Open Archive called Q-Space, which is a repository for all graduate theses, and would only need to expand its use to provide for all our peer-reviewed work.

Even with our excellent library, the group I’m involved in, Innovation Park, spends hundreds of dollars every year accessing important publications. Most of the world’s schools don’t possess expensive access to the majority of peer reviewed work and thus every academic field suffers.

Making Queen’s scholarship publicly available for free is simply the right thing to do. Open access will also increase the number of citations for Queen’s faculty, the h-index scores (which are used to evaluate the scientific productivity of scientists through citations) for individual faculty members, and therefore increase the uptake of our research outside of North America.

Second, we should publish all course content openly on the web like the MIT Open Course Ware (OCW). This semester I altered a homework assignment in the OCW which unquestionably helped enrich my new course, Engineering for Sustainable Development (MECH 425). The students strong enough to complete the assignment will carry the lessons with them for some time.

Queen’s University could have a similar impact throughout the world’s educational system by providing our course content for free. In addition, this would improve the quality of our teaching materials because no one wants to post bad content with their name on it. It would help recruit students and existing students would enjoy having this material available to supplement their learning on campus.

Third, Queen’s University should open its operations to energy service companies (ESCOs). ESCOs provide comprehensive energy savings and renewable energy projects. An ESCO performs a detailed analysis of the property, designs an energy-efficient solution, installs the required technologies and maintains the system to ensure energy savings. The savings in energy costs is used to pay back the capital investment of the project over 10 to 20 years. If the project doesn’t provide the guaranteed returns on the investment, the ESCO is responsible to pay the difference.

Queen’s burns through about $15 million per year in utility expenses, much of it wasted by antiquated technology related to energy and water use. Using off-the-shelf-technologies, we could cut this expense by a third to one half while radically reducing our environmental impact.

Although installing these new technologies provides a high return on investment, Queen’s hasn’t yet found a way to make these investments themselves. ESCOs would be happy to make that investment for us to earn a fraction of the profit reaped from making campus more efficient. Pennsylvania State University’s first ESCO contract guaranteed over $7 million in savings in 10 years, and Harvard Business School has cut their operating expenses by about $1 million per year making similar efficiency investments.

Fourth, Queen’s University should open up its research activities. Just as the children’s song teaches, “The more we get together the happier we will be,” the more researchers focus on a problem, the more likely they’ll find a solution.

I’ve had some experience with this research partnership model in the United States under the Thin Film Partnership Program (TFPP), which aimed to improve the efficiency and reliability of emerging thin-film photovoltaic technologies through collaboration among industry, national laboratories and universities.

The TFPP was a powerful success. In 2008, the thin film solar industry grew by a staggering 123 per cent, due in a large part to the R&D from the TFPP. This has had a ripple effect throughout the entire solar industry, massively reducing prices.

For example, the Ontario Green Energy Act offers 20-year fixed contracts to buy solar-generated electricity from anyone in Ontario with a roof and a solar photovoltaic system. We have a lot of unused rooftops. The prices of solar panels have dropped so fast, profitability of installing solar panels in Ontario has literally gone through the roof. Now entire chains like Loblaws are planning on covering all of their stores’ roofs to cash in.

We can start opening our research by first openly publishing our protocols. Our friends in biology and biological engineering at Caltech, Harvard University, Yale University, University of Pennsylvania, McGill University, etc. already use Open Wet Ware, which is a wiki to promote the sharing of information and know-how among researchers in this field. Queen’s is conspicuously absent.

My own Applied Sustainability Research Group has been sharing our protocols, literature reviews and data on Appropedia, a site for collaborative approaches to sustainability, poverty reduction and international development.

This work has been read thousands more times than would be expected of normal academic writing. There are a host of other sites that cater to every field like for scientific workflows and, the semantic wiki for the sciences.

Academia shares much in common with the hacker gift culture; the more you give away, the more you receive in recognition and status. To fully realize our potential as the top school in the north, we need to open up.
Joshua Pearce is a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering and a researcher with Innovation Park.

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