Current issues in academia: Why we need blue-sky research

Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) executive director James Turk wrote an interesting article about “Why we need blue-sky research”. The term stands for basic research that is conducted out of the researcher’s curiosity, not for a clearly defined result. Examples abound that document how blue-sky research yielded innovations of critical importance to human society and the economy.

Unfortunately, support for basic research requires long-term, strategic thinking that is rare among our politicians. In November 2011, the Ontario government cancelled the “Ontario Research Fund – Research Excellence program” in the middle of a call for proposals, which over 100 groups of researchers across the province were working on. On the day of the notification, I had hired a research coordinator to help with putting together a proposal for interdisciplinary research on “Spatial Analysis and Geovisualization in the Social Sciences”. Incidentally, in the week of the ORF cancellation, premier McGuinty announced a new $20m Southwest Ontario development fund to support businesses in creating jobs. My impression from other recent news is that research funds and other support provided to for-profit companies has been found to be largely ineffective in spurring economic growth.

This insight seems equally lost on the federal government, which has mandated the research granting councils to move funds from basic research to targeted, industry-led programs. I am currently working on a proposal that would support a single partner company’s product development. This is an interesting collaboration for me, but I am convinced that the same amount of taxpayers’ money would have a greater long-term effect when invested in curiosity-driven research.

Recognizing mapmakers

“Recognizing mapmakers” is the motto of the National Geographic Map Awards. We are talking serious mapping, by which I mean the professional design of thematic maps that are used for research, planning, and decision-making in a broad range of disciplines.

I am extremely pleased to report that Brad Carter, a parttime student in our Master of Spatial Analysis (MSA) program, won the 2nd place prize of the 2012 National Geographic Award in Mapping. Brad created his award-winning map on “Broken Windows & Violent Crime in Philadelphia” as his final assignment in my course on “Thematic Cartography and Geovisualization” in November 2011. A high-resolution PDF of Brad’s map is available from the CartoNews blog of the American Association of Geographers’ Cartography Specialty Group.

With his map, Brad illustrates crime theories by superimposing social factors (single-mother households), environmental factors (vacant buildings as a proxy for urban decay), and crime incidents. The combination of data from the US Census, the Crime Reports Web site, and from Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access allows the map reader to determine whether the “broken windows theory” can explain the distribution of crime in Philadelphia. The uncommon dasymetric mapping technique used in the large-scale map places aggregate information only in those areas where the phenomenon is likely to exist, instead of uniformly distributing it across the entire enumeration unit. A crime analyst himself, Brad is creating and using this kind of map to support prevention programs and policing operations at Durham Regional Police. In the MSA program, he is working with me on a locally weighted heat vulnerability index (more to come soon;-).

Alumni sightings at Environics Analytics

A group of 4th-year Geographic Analysis students and a few faculty members went to the offices of Environics Analytics today to get a better idea of how “geography works”. Environics is a leading marketing and business intelligence firm, and has been a prime employer of outstanding graduates from our BA in Geographic Analysis and Master of Spatial Analysis programs. This afternoon, a number of graduates from the 1990s and 2000s provided the students with an overview of their careers and current jobs as well as an insight into the most useful knowledge and skills learned in school and on the job. Several speakers emphasized the ability of geographers to keep high-level issues and goals in perspective, and see connections between seemingly unconnected phenomena. Paraphrasing Mrs. Jan Kestle, Environics founder and president, there is nothing in the world that cannot be examined through the geographical lens, which in turn translates into job opportunities for engaged students. Jobs held by our grads at Environics span the sales, research, and software development groups, and include (senior) client advocate, sales consultant, research analyst, research associate, and senior developer. It was rewarding to see how a number of students I taught in the last 6-8 years have found their vocation in a trendsetting yet friendly work environment.