UNB and computer science

I may be just getting old so allow an old geezer a reflection.  When I was finishing high school and doing the obligatory review of potential universities I distinctly remember UNB positioning itself as one of Canada’s top computer science schools (this is circa mid 1980s). 

Economic development usually happens in cycles and it seems to me that many of the top universities in the C.S. area (Waterloo comes to mind) back in the 1980s were catalyts for the development of a significant IT clusters in their communities.

Did UNB play this catalytic role in the creation of a large IT cluster in Fredericton?  I know there are a few firms such as CARIS but are there dozens of world class companies emerging from the research at UNB? 

I really don’t know the answer here.  Just asking the question.  Someone remarked to me offhand the other day that UNB CS has been woeful at spinning out IT startups and leveraging research.  That same person suggested that something like half of all UNB CS grads over the last 20 years have left New Brunswick to work elsewhere.

Anybody know more about this?

You, of course, realize my interest.  I think that universities should be critical players in a community or province’s economic development.  If we want to build a cluster in – you pick the topic – UNB should be at the front end of the value proposition for that cluster – churning out students, setting up research chairs, attracting global companies as research partners, incubating spinoff companies, playing a key role selling the community/province to investors, etc.

I guess all this stuff I was told about UNB and its computer science faculty troubled me.

15 thoughts on “UNB and computer science

  1. Even more depressing is that the National Research Council’s national research center for IT was established in NB, right on the UNB campus, and handed a $300 million budget (via ACOA) for the first 5 years.anyone have an ROI analysis for that investment?

    Interestingly, the NRC IT initiative was delayed by a fierce competition between the three cities. When the dust settled, the dot com bust took place. Did we miss the opportunity to establish ourselves? I would say yes.

  2. Well, the above is like saying that since a hurricane struck during that time it must have been a hurricane that dun it. Where is the evidence? Where did the money go and how was it spent? How long was it delayed and was that any different than investments in any other province?

    This goes back to the point that education is the cheif means of promoting ED. If you dont’ have an educated workforce, you’ve got a dependant one. It should be noted that ALL of Canada is heading in that direction. While Waterloo is ‘successful’ in some ways, you have to remember that this area is becoming VERY class structured, and will get even moreso if auto plants close. UWaterloo is quite successful, but mainly because it is essentially a private school that goes worldwide for students. In the north of the province its very different, but southern ontario is like a different country now. UWaterloo is massively growing, it gets a new building each year on average, and a new faculty every couple of years. Next is said to be a law school.

    But we really haven’t seen any good data on this. WHERE are new graduates going? What are they doing? How many profs have some kind of private enterprise going? How many companies are coming out of the school and how many are trying to get funded publicly or privately? Without that data everything is just guesses. I suspect for many graduates its a lot easier to simply get a job elsewhere than try to start a company in Fredericton (but thats just a guess).

  3. “…and handed a $300 million budget (via ACOA) for the first 5 years.anyone have an ROI analysis for that investment?”

    The primary outcome from research is not business development. We can’t expect researchers to become entrepreneurs and save our province. Research exists to expand knowledge, and economic development from research should be considered icing on the cake, not as the main course.

  4. “and handed a $300 million budget (via ACOA) for the first 5 years”

    With these kinds of projects you need a 10 yr timeline minimum. It can take a decade or more before most innovations start to return profits or even hit the marketplace. If you are just starting up an organization, then the wait can be longer. That’s why only a few large private outfits and govts can afford these investments. That’s also why people are often mislead when they look any spinoffs and see instant success – they are forgetting the time and money spent by the uni, govt, or industry in setting up the research labs, training staff, and funding the initial ‘interesting but it will never go anywhere’ work.

    UNB had a headstart in computing science a decade or two ago. Perhaps we need a forensic analysis to see what went wrong. Other places like Waterloo picked up the ball and ran with it.

    I’d also note a recent G&M article pointing out the competition between Atlantic unis for undergrads. Maritime govts need to decide what they really want unis to do and change the funding models appropriately – is undergrad recruiting really a priorty? Perhaps they should be spending more effort on determining how thay can help the Maritimes grow thru innovation.

  5. I would say that if the IT industry in N.B. is doing most of its hiring by word of mouth, rather than posting jobs, and not funding scholarships or making other connections with UNB CS, the industry needs to put a little more effort into looking after its own needs.
    In this province, we have a history of “churning out students.” We churn them out in CS and engineering – to few jobs. We churn them out in education – to no jobs. We churn them out in law, to what used to be the province with the highest per capita rate of lawyers per 1,000 (and may still be for all I know.) And each of those grad we “churn out” emerges from the blender with $30,000 to $95,000 in debt, depending upon their program and the length of time they’ve taken to complete it.
    I am one of the few people I know from my grad year who stayed in N.B. Oh, a lot of people stayed for a few years, working contract and part-time – then they left for the U.S., the U.K., Asia, Latin America. They had to – it was leave, or park al ambitions of having a home and a family.
    universities do more than enough churning – for industry, for the professions, but mostly just to pay the light, heat and professorial bills to keep their own doors open. We need to stop churning and get serious about economic development, where it matters – in the boardrooms – and stop looking to government or post-secondary institutions to provide the initiative that must come from entrepreneurs and far-sighted businesses.
    The IT industry is not without resources. If it has openings, advertise and start recruiting locally. If it wants more grads, start funding scholarships, internships and post-grad work placements and take the recruiting to the high schools. Quit asking taxpayers and students, who are already paying plenty, to do the heavy lifting.

  6. “I think that universities should be critical players in a community or province’s economic development.”

    I know there are some, like Ralph Nader, who believe it is unethical for academics to be moonlighting their time (as consultants) with Exxon mobile types or any big corporation. His motto is that “the basic purpose of the modern university is usually proclaimed in high and noble terms: to search for truth, to transmit knowledge and critical skills to students, and to do all this for the betterment of society as a whole. Research and Teaching, the twin primary jobs of the professor, are expected to advance civilized society with both short term and long term benefits.”

    That said, I think it is imperative that research be done to aid a society to better modernize the way we do things, regardless if it is deemed not a “societal good” by left leaning anti-capitalist. Not only is it beneficial for UNB to do more research in the field of computer science for the betterment of natural advancement, it is a must that New Brunswick get involved in other things that could be groundbreaking globally. With regards to the latter, I’m thinking in terms of biotechnology research that is being conducted out of Mount Allison university, a possible cancer breakthrough that could change peoples lives and make them more livable.

    Why it took so long for private or public money to come his way is shocking to me: http://www.mta.ca/news/index.cgi?id=1293

  7. Not sure if an unemployed forestry worker in the ‘chi would prefer to wait 10-15 years for the possible opportunities from a $300 million long term investment or direct at least part of the efforts at shorter term ED. For example, here is a $55 + $70 M (Ontario + Fed)investment in Woodstock to capture a billion dollar plant and 2000 well paying jobs (plus hundreds of spin off jobs): http://www.auto123.com/en/news/car-news/toyota-to-build-new-rav4-plant-in-woodstock-ontario?model=RAV4&artid=44529&pg=1

    Maybe invest $150 M in a federal research facility with 15 year payback and $150 M in an immediate 2000 quality jobs? Or are we better off to spend $300M and get 4000 jobs immediately? Or stick with the status quo and invest the full $300 M and hope that jobs come in 10-15 years?

  8. Forestry workers aren’t going to find a job at an auto plant. These jobs are very technical, ontario community colleges basically have been training simply for auto plants-until now. Now the ads in front talk about construction jobs. Forestry workers would be better off with the community forests model, but that’s another issue.

    The fact is that the OECD and most research recommendations have been that Canada needs to focus on knowledge and technial industries. That doesn’t throw out community colleges, in Europe more people attend technical schools, but they are a lot different than community colleges.

  9. disclaimer – UNB CS grad here

    I think CARIS was born in UNB’s Survey Engineering dept, not CS. Masry was an engineering prof.

    re: UNB CS, most of the people I graduated with couldn’t leave NB fast enough.

    Someone said UNB had a headstart 10 years ago compared to Waterloo, I’d say Waterloo has had the best canuck CS program for at least 20 years.

    The idea of CS grads walking out of school and being entrepreneurs is a little suspect anyway. We took CS because we like computers, we like math, we like solving problems. We’re NERDS.

    I like computers. I don’t like balancing payroll or trying to raise capital or trying to sell stuff.

    Give me a job working for someone else, so that I can worry about the computers and they can worry about all that other boring stuff that I’m not good at.

    While I’m at it, give me a job in a place with critical mass so that when the tech I’m working on today gets stale (i.e. in a year or 2) I can jump ship to a different company and work on the new hotness. Can’t do that in Freddy.

  10. Thank you anon 2:26 for reminding us of an important fact.

    Not all university students want to be entrepreneurs. Most are looking for a challenging job related to their discipline.

    And guess what, most businesses are looking to university for good quality graduates. However, it seems some universities have lost site of their mandate.

  11. “Not all university students want to be entrepreneurs.”

    Who said they had to be? All you need is a reasonable fraction who want to be and have the opportunity to do so. They end up providing jobs for the others. And hopefully they get the reward for doing so.

    And again, insofar as ‘quality’ graduates is concerned, where would you go for the best cs grads – a cs dept that has most of its focus on teaching, or the one that has a major focus on research? The latter will attract the best and brightest.

  12. “Someone said UNB had a headstart 10 years ago compared to Waterloo”

    No one said that.

  13. Not ALL CS students are ‘nerds’. Bill Gates was a ‘nerd’ of a specific type, and thats all it took. That’s where networking really comes in. Say your a programmer or animator, you need to meet people who want to invest in those fields. If you are a programmer, you may have developed a program outside your job because jobs of course don’t cater to personal whim. Investors then provide the financial wherewithal because that’s what they do. It’s THEIR money, so they damn well will make sure that some dork who stays up late at night programming and has no knowledge of the outside world will be making business decisions.

    The model that works in science is that the researcher handles the research, and controls the staff-since they are used to doing that anyway (often students). Sometimes there is a go between who USED to be a scientist but now just works the business side of things.

    But it really needs to be kept in mind that Waterloo WAS ahead of most places, but who here would be talking about Waterloo if RIM wasn’t around? For lack of a better word that was a stroke of luck. If you actually consider how much effort has gone into building this industry in Waterloo, the results have been pretty disappointing. There are lots of CS grads that can’t get out of HERE fast enough either. There isn’t nearly the variety of employers to keep a programmer happy that people think.

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