Welcome to the Faculty of Science Strategic Planning Blog

Welcome to the Faculty of Science Strategic Planning Blog

Thank you for visiting our blog. The Faculty of Science at the University of Alberta is developing a new five-year strategic plan. We need your help in creating a vision for the future. What should we be doing today to set the Faculty up for further success five years from now? Ten years from now? Let's be bold. Let's be creative. Let's create a plan that is challenging but realistic to achieve. Together we can chart a course that will engage our talented students, staff, and faculty members as we work to advance the frontiers of knowledge to the benefit of our community, province, country, and the world.

Please contribute your ideas and feedback. I hope to have all the input needed for the plan by the end of June, and then write the document over the summer.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Science Internship Program

The Science Internship Program (SIP), formerly called the Industrial Internship Program (IIP), is an important part of the Strategic Plan for which we could not wait. I made the executive decision late last year that we must grow this program.

The internship program is critical for showing our relevance to industry. Most engineering students do internship(s) -- often four months in length -- and most do so with Alberta companies. This makes a compelling case to the Government of Alberta on the importance of Engineering to the province. And Science? Our internships are 8-16 months long and available to third-year Honours and Specialization students. This past year only 50 students participated. With a number like that, it's hard to argue that  that Science is industrially relevant in Alberta.

In 2013-14, we did a review of the Industrial Internship Program and consulted with the Departments. This led to a series of decisions to raise the profile of the program:

  • Rename it to be the Science Internship Program (SIP);
  • Expand the pool of eligible third-year students to include General Science students;
  • Make resources available to engage more companies to participate in the program; and
  • Launch an initiative to educate students on the value of the program.

With the above changes (and others), the Faculty of Science is investing to dramatically grow the Science Internship Program. Our BHAG? A five-fold increase in the number of participating students. It sounds impressive, but remember that represents only a few hundred students out of our current enrolment of 6,450 undergraduates. Clearly, even with an ambitious BHAG there is lots more work to be done.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Working Together on a Common Project

Some researchers do their work on their own, while others are part of small/large teams working on research problems of related interest. But one thing we do not have in Science is an umbrella project that would be applicable to a significant number of faculty members.

We have extensive research breadth in the Faculty of Science, and in many areas exceptional research depth.  Is it possible for us to envision a research theme or grand challenge that could bring many of these seemingly-diverse areas together? Could we create a marquee research project for the Faculty of Science? Of course, it is not required that we have one. But… if there was a topic that made sense for the Faculty then it could be a powerful force to create critical mass and build reputation.

When I talk about the research done in the Faculty Science to alumni, donors, community people, and government, it is challenging to succinctly communicate our impressive capabilities and accomplishments. The diversity of research topics such as nanotechnology, glycomics, black holes, dinosaurs, machine learning, wildlife management, fracking, algebraic geometry, and neuroprotective treatments -- the proverbial tip of the iceberg -- make for a fragmented message.

Two come to mind: environment and sustainability. Obviously they are related to each other, but can be spun in different ways. It is easy to see how many areas in most of our departments could fall under an umbrella research theme such as (and I am just making this up; you can do better): "Diagnosing and Treating our Environmental Future". We might even have a catch-phase such as (again, I am making this up): "Informed by the Past. Understanding the Present. Acting for the Future".

I confess that a research theme around the environment/sustainability, while important subjects, does not have much of a cachet. How many other universities have been there and done that? Whatever idea/theme we choose to work on, we will need to make it uniquely ours. We want to be seen as innovative, not just rehashing old ideas.

An Overarching BHAG?

In creating a long-range plan for the Faculty of Science, it may be useful to have an overarching goal -- one that encompasses many of the objectives in the plan. This is not a requirement, just a suggestion. If we want an overarching goal, then here is a possible BHAG:

Achieve a ratio of 4 undergraduate students to one graduate student (4:1).

It sounds innocuous, but in reality it is a challenging objective. For September 2013, the Faculty of Science had an undergraduate to graduate student ratio of close to 5.4:1. For September 2014, the ratio will fall, possibly to 5.6:1. We are going in the wrong direction. The vast majority of top non-Canadian research universities have ratios less than 3:1; some even have larger graduate populations than undergraduate. In Canada, a 4:1 ratio seems more common. The following table shows institutional averages (not just Science) for representative Canadian and U.S. research-intensive universities.

British Columbia
4.0 : 1
2.1 : 1
1 : 2.0
1 : 1
4.2 : 1

UG:GS ratios for select schools (wikipedia and home pages)

What would it take to achieve a 4:1 ratio? It would require concerted effort on several fronts:
  • Control the undergraduate population. There is unprecedented demand for a Faculty of Science education. We currently have 6,450 undergraduate students, despite being funded for only 6,100.
  • Increase the number of graduate students. Last year our population size was roughly 1,200 but budget cutbacks caused us to revise our target lower.
  • Increase the size of the professoriate. At its peak, the Faculty had 300 professors. Several years of budget cuts and last year's Voluntary Severance Program will bring us down to less than 280.
  • Increase the level and types of departmental and Faculty support. The budget cuts have been particularly hard on the support staff, who have done an amazing job of doing more with less.
  • Increase our research funding. In particular, there will be even greater need for funding graduate students.
Here are some sample numbers to put the above in perspective. Please do not take this as a given -- the numbers were chosen because it makes the math simple.
  • Grow the graduate population to 1,440. This was one of the original targets set in justifying the cost of building CCIS.
  • This implies having an undergraduate population of 5,760, achieving a 4:1 ratio.
  • Faculty members supervise an average of 4 graduate students. With a smaller undergraduate population, there will be more professor time for graduate supervision. Let's assume we can increase the number of graduate students per professor to 4.5.
  • The above implies the need for a professoriate of 320 professors. If we maintain an average of 4 graduate students per professor, the professoriate would have to grow to 360.
Of course there are political and financial realities that make the above numbers a challenge to accomplish. Regardless, we can set a Big Hairy Audacious Goal and do our best to achieve it. There is no doubt that our undergraduate student to graduate student ratio must be lowered, so let's be ambitious and work towards a ratio that will have a major impact on what we can accomplish.

Over to you. What do you think about this BHAG? Do you have other suggestions for an overarching BHAG for the Faculty of Science?

Monday, 5 May 2014


A useful strategic plan should:

  • have goals that, if achieved, add value to the Faculty of Science;
  • be realizable, or at least have reasonable progress made, by the end of the planning term;
  • be strategic in that the goals build for the long-term; and
  • be realistic, especially in terms of resource requirements.
BHAG (Danny Chung: http://goo.gl/7Ki0D2)

A strategic plan should be challenging to achieve. Set goals that take effort to reach -- force us to go beyond what ordinary effort can accomplish.

With this in mind, I propose including in the Strategic Plan a number of BHAGs -- Big Hairy Audacious Goals. A BHAG should have sticker shock; something that seems impressive should we achieve it. My hope is that with the BHAGs we have a handful of high profile goals that we can agree will help position us as a stronger Faculty in research, teaching, service, and outreach.

Quoted in wikipedia: "A true BHAG is clear and compelling, serves as unifying focal point of effort, and acts as a clear catalyst for team spirit. It has a clear finish line, so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal; people like to shoot for finish lines." [Collins and Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies]