The Michener Foundation Fellowship has been everything I anticipated and more.
My application was to study biotechnology at the University of Guelph and at the Biotechnology Research Institute, which is a joint effort of the University of Guelph and the University of Waterloo. I set out to learn and write about the research itself, about how this research is funded and about some of the politics.
I have interviewed more than 55 researchers and administrators, some of them two or three times. More than 75 articles and columns have bee submitted to a wide range of publications from the East Coast to the West and into the United States.
To date, articles have been purchased by the Toronto Star, the Toronto Globe and Mail, the Ottawa Citizen, Southam News Service, Farm and Country of Toronto, Ontario Farmer of London, Ontario, Manitoba Cooperator of Winnipeg, Farm Focus of Yarmouth, N.S., Canada Poultryman of Surrey B.C., The Royal Tribune of Guelph, Rural Voice of Dungannon, Ontario, The Western Producer of Saskatoon, the Financial Post, Hog Quarterly of Toronto, Hoard’s Dairyman of Fort Atkinson, Wisc., Reader’s Digest, Small Business Magazine of Toronto, Cattleman Magazine of Winnipeg, Research Magazine and Biotechnology Canada, both Sentry Communications publications from Toronto. Those that have indicated definite interest, but have yet to finalize purchases, are Harrowsmith Magazine of Camden East, Ontario, The Furrow, which spans North America and has Canadian headquarters at Grimsby, Ontario, Report on Business magazine at the Globe and Mail, MacLean’s Magazine of Toronto, the Ontario Milk Producer of Mississauga, the Fraser Valley Milk Producers Association of Vancouver, Dairy Contact of Edmonton, the Quebec Farmer’s Advocate of St. Anne de Bellevue, and La Terre de chez nous of Longueil, Quebec.
The list show the information is reaching a broad audience, both in terms of geography and interests. The articles are as diverse as the audiences. For example, one brief item told how a researcher in Australia popped a special gene into an ordinary envelope and used regular mail service to have it delivered to Guelph. Dr. Bob Stubbings told how he’s taking eggs from unborn calves, fertilizing them in a test tube to create embryos and transplanting the embryos into dairy cows; when he prefects the technique, the purebred cattle industry will probably die because there will be no market left for anything but the absolute best – i.e. only one bull and one cow in 100,000 will be genetic parents.
Some articles dealt in politics, such as the intolerable delays obtaining biotechnology patents and the regulatory vacuum in the U.S. and Canada for companies that want to market genetically-engineered micro-organisms, plants and animals. One business article provides a detailed account of the academic jealousies, trials, tribulations and conflicts of interest involved when two Guelph professors decided to create a company to market the vaccines they developed.
I anticipated the greatest challenge would be gathering and understanding the information. True enough, that was difficult. But the greater challenge – by far – has been getting articles into print. Most editors are enthusiastic about the nature and quality of the articles. the main problem is that hardly any of the articles carry any sense of immediacy, or involve a breathless deadline. And so they are set aside on a shelf to wait for space to develop. This is happening from the largest circulation (Toronto Star) to smallest circulation (The weekly Guelph Tribune) publications on the list. Prof. Mac Laing of the University of Western Ontario says he faced the same situation when he was science writer for the Toronto Telegram.
My greatest frustration involved an article about research by Dr. Tony Hayes, so highly qualified that he is a professor at both Ontario Veterinary College and the School of Medicine at the University of Toronto. He showed me new data from his environmental studies of Hamilton harbour, indicating that PCB pollution is not causing fish cancers, as many have believed, but is actually “inoculating” them against cancer. Hayes thinks enzymes are involved, an explanation that holds tremendous implications for cancer prevention. Yet the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail and the Hamilton Spectator all rejected that story; they said they had it earlier, which seems strange since Hayes assured me his results are brand new. I wonder if the story was rejected because it runs counter to conventional wisdom.
Some things I anticipated, but failed to find. I found no huge slush funds and no monstrously-wasteful projects.
In stead I found a dearth of funding. The main waste lies in the bureaucratic demands in filing grant applications and reports. In fact, that consumes a majority of the time of Canada’s most outstanding university researchers; Dr. Ken Kasha proved to be an excellent example for a story on that point. I found lots of politics, some petty jealousies, but no outright frauds. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that researchers are so consumed with bettering the lot mankind that the overwhelming majority literally do not recognize the potential for evil in their discoveries – for example, that their genetic engineer of diseases could be used as a weapon to attack target populations of crops, animals or even humans.
I spent about $3,000, most of it on travel to Guelph, and worked from my home, using a personal computer I already owned. The University of Guelph was generous in providing an office, telephone, photocopying services, secretaries to take messages and parking. Freelance income will total about $4,000. Applicants who intend to travel or take up residence on campus, and who intend to study without gaining any freelance income, must suffer heavy financial losses in leaving jobs to take up a fellowship.
I am delighted with my experience. I saw your fellowship as an opportunity to dream about what would do if I had four months and $20,000. I dreamt that dream, and I have lived it.