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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 11 | Nov. 6, 2003

New Science Dean: More Research Funding, Less U of T Envy

John Hepburn charts a new course for the faculty

By Michelle Cook

John Hepburn is an internationally recognized powerhouse in the fields of laser chemistry and laser spectroscopy research who studied under Nobel prize-winning chemist John Polanyi at the University of Toronto. He’s also a 48-year-old father of three who commutes to campus daily by bike.

Now, almost three years after arriving at UBC from the University of Waterloo to head up the Chemistry department, Hepburn has taken the reins as dean of the Faculty of Science.
UBC Reports sat down with Hepburn shortly after he accepted the job.

When did you decide to become a scientist?

I’ve always been interested in science. When I was quite young, my dad came back from a business trip with a glossy book on dinosaurs. It was something like Walter Cronkite Talks About Dinosaurs and it came with a little plastic 45-rpm record narrated by Cronkite and I just loved that. From that day on, I was going to be a paleontologist, which is not so unusual for a seven-year-old boy, but I kind of stuck with it.

Throughout high school, I had the good luck to have good and enthusiastic science teachers much more often than disinterested ones. As a result, I hadn’t decided what kind of scientist I wanted to be other than I wanted to be one. Then I got a scholarship [from the University of Waterloo] to study chemistry so, in Grade 13, I said, “Well, I’m going to be a chemist.”

As the new Dean of Science, you’re following in the footsteps of Maria Klawe, a dynamic force who championed women in science and spearheaded innovative science programs at UBC. What are your top priorities for the faculty?

What I want to tackle is raising both the profile and substance of the research effort at UBC. I think that Maria did a tremendous job of invigorating the science faculty as a whole. I see where we could now have really explosive growth is in the research effort and that’s very challenging because that’s a much more expensive enterprise.

In terms of improving the research efforts here, I view as a top priority forging a stronger partnership with the provincial government, which up to now has been a bit on the sidelines with research. They tend to put money into research through things like the B.C. Knowledge Development Fund but they don’t really involve themselves in the research enterprises at universities -- not in the basic sciences -- and that’s something I’d like to change.

How could the B.C. government be more involved in research?

The example would be in comparison to other provincial governments. In Ontario, the equivalent of the B.C. Knowledge Development Fund is the Ontario Innovation Trust, a stand-alone fund that only exists to match CFI [Canada Foundation for Innovation] grants. And that’s an automatic thing; you don’t even have to apply. You just forward your CFI application to them. In B.C., you have to write a separate application that’s time consuming and, in the end, they match the CFI grant anyway.

Ontario has the Research and Development Challenge Fund [a fund that supports non-CFI supported research projects]. Ontario has always had a system of graduate scholarships. Ontario has provincial Centres of Excellence that existed before the federal Networks of Centres of Excellence. The Quebec government has an independent funding agency for scientific research in universities that is, in some ways, superior to Ontario, and Alberta has a very strong history of funding university and medical research.

So in order to compete with institutions in those provinces and ensure we’re also attracting the best and the brightest we need similar funding?

There are people at the University of Toronto who I would love to attract to UBC. . . but you’d have to convince them not only to give up the infrastructure that’s available there, but to give up literally hundreds of thousands of dollars per year of Ontario government funding for their research programs. This is not an exaggeration.

Researchers at UBC can get money through the federal Centres for Excellence, but there are no provincial Centres of Excellence and there’s no Research and Development Challenge Fund, no [provincial] graduate student scholarships. When you look at the level of support available to someone at the University of Toronto, you can’t duplicate that level of support here, so there’s no point in offering them a job.

Will you be spending a lot of time in Victoria?

I’ll spend as much time in Victoria as I have to, if necessary. I don’t get the impression that the provincial government hates us. I think they see the value of universities but they still haven’t worked out the details of what it is to “like” universities. It would be good to convince the province to go that next step.

You’ve been appointed for a six-year term. What’s your vision for the faculty by the end of your term?

I think that being successful would be not bothering to compare ourselves with the University of Toronto but comparing ourselves -- without having people smirk at us -- with major American universities. Why can’t we be compared with the University of Washington? Right now we wouldn’t do that because the University of Washington is a monster research enterprise. I don’t see any reason why we can’t be a monster research enterprise. It’s going to be a little difficult to become a Caltech or a Harvard because we don’t have the multibillion dollar endowments but I don’t see any reason why we can’t aspire to be as good as any of the big state universities in the U.S.

It’s an admitted sign of inferiority when you constantly worry about how you’re doing compared to University of Toronto because they don’t lose any sleep about what UBC is doing. If, at the end of six years, I can be in a position of not really caring what the University of Toronto does, except if it’s academically interesting to me, then that would be successful.

What are your academic plans for the faculty?

I’d like to expand the size of the graduate program in science. We get very good students now, but I’d like to get more of the good ones and larger numbers. The mark of success would be if a Canadian graduate student would agonize over the choice of going to the University of California, Berkeley or UBC. They would weigh the pros and cons, and it would involve a head-on comparison of what kind of research they would get done at the two universities. I’d like to have UBC win a large fraction of those comparisons.

What about undergraduates?

We already get extremely high quality students but I don’t think we give them a great undergraduate experience because the labs are in terrible condition. They’ve been under-funded for so long that people have forgotten what properly funded labs are.

Right now, it’s clear that the honours bachelors degree - the top quality undergraduate degree -- is considered by some to be a booby prize compared to getting into medicine. I’d like students to enter first-year science with the idea that they’d be equally happy getting into medical school or getting an honours bachelors degree. Science is a key discipline and if our society is going to move forward we need to have excellent students interested in studying science for itself. That’s what they should take away from UBC Science; that it was a wonderful experience.

What role does a UBC-industry partnership play in your vision for the Faculty of Science?

It plays a very strong role. We want to have high-level technical jobs available for our graduates. Beyond that there’s a natural tie because the driving force -- particularly in the high-tech industry -- is research. If B.C. is going to move forward as a modern economy, we need more high-tech industry and historically, everywhere else in the world where high-tech industry has prospered, there’s a university which produces a skilled labour force and also produces ideas. Small companies can’t do all their own research and large companies, even if they can do their own research, need a constant supply of fresh ideas.

If those in industry say, as they recently did with the [B.C. government’s] “Doubling the Opportunity” initiative, that they’re going to die unless something is done to help UBC prosper, you’ve got two groups -- the university and industry -- telling the government they’ve got to give us more money and support. That’s critical.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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