Story 2 – Five Universities: A story of a remarkable collaboration

The Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre (BMSC) was born of a remarkable collaboration by five western Canadian universities. The University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, University of Victoria, University of Calgary and the University of Alberta, institutions that are in many other respects competitors, cooperate as members of a non-profit to manage BMSC over what has been a successful 50-year partnership. This unique collaboration is part of what makes BMSC considerably greater than the sum of its parts.

Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre (BMSC) is unique for many reasons, says John McInerney, the station’s first Director who arrived in 1975. “Superficially, it probably doesn’t seem or feel very different from many other field stations across Canada and internationally, “but how it operates is fundamentally different,” he says. 
BMSC was born of a remarkable collaboration by five western Canadian universities. The University of British Columbia (UBC), Simon Fraser University (SFU), University of Victoria (UVic), University of Calgary (UofC) and the University of Alberta (UofA) – institutions in many other respects competitors — cooperate as members of a non-profit to manage BMSC over what has been a 50-year successful collaboration.
Remote field stations fuel innovative, enlightening research but are expensive and logistically challenging to run, making it challenging for one university to operate independently. So when multiple institutions expressed interest in establishing a Pacific coast research hub, the National Research Council suggested that Western universities find a site they could share.
Seaweed biologist Louis Druehl of SFU led the five-university search committee that eventually chose Bamfield. Many people pulled the strings, he says, but “we were the puppets that had all the fun.” To establish their venture, these universities formed the Western Canadian Universities Marine Biological Society (WCUMBS), the non-profit that owns and operates BMSC. 
Each member university has two representatives on the Management Council, that functions as a Board of Directors. Appointed by their respective University Presidents, the first representative from each university advises and votes on finances, the second on academic matters. 

 

“There’s a sense of pride and responsibility by all the parties,” says SFU marine ecologist Isabelle Côté, who has served on BMSC’s management council and conducts research and teaching at BMSC, beginning as a teaching assistant in 1985.
Given the size, scale and remoteness of BMSC, “I don’t think it could have worked any other way,” says Robert Shadwick. He first arrived at Bamfield in 1976 as a UBC Master’s student after hitchhiking to Victoria for spare parts. His Volkswagen had broken down on the rough logging road. Later, during his career studying fish biomechanics at UBC, Shadwick served on BMSC’s management council. 
“Five is a really good number,” says marine evolutionary ecologist Rich Palmer at the University of Alberta. A long-time BMSC researcher, he also spent time in 2007 as its Director. Day-to-day operations are facilitated and funded by each university’s faculty of science, and a team of five spreads the financial risk, explains Palmer. The member universities’ economic geography also often works in the station’s favour. 
Amongst the original committee tasked with finding and assessing the feasibility of a west coast marine research station, there was initial skepticism about whether Alberta universities would maintain their commitment to a site in British Columbia. Time has eased that doubt. 
“Alberta goes through these ups and downs,” notes UBC marine algal ecologist Robert deWreede. Over the years, when finances were short, the two Alberta universities sometimes stepped in to supply equipment that British Columbia members could not. “Alberta has had deep pockets at times,” he says, giving the example of BMSC’s research ship, the MV Alta, purchased with Albertan donations and named for an abbreviation of the province.  Conversely, sometimes BC universities stepped in with donations, like SFU archaeology department’s scintillating 1995 gift — a liquid scintillation counter for measuring radioactivity. 
Individual gifts bolster the team’s relentless collaborative work to keep BMSC afloat with funding. In 2016, for example, BMSC urgently needed money to improve its electrical grid and build a backup generator. Eligibility for one major opportunity required matching funds, explains BMSC’s current Director Sean Rogers, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Calgary . “All five University Presidents discussed our application and unanimously agreed to provide $1.5 million in matching funds.” That successful communal effort was transformative. “The benefits of that funding have been a game-changer,” says Rogers. 
Nevertheless, “Five owners can be challenging,” notes University of Alberta environmental physiologist Greg Goss. “Sometimes there are things people decide ‘others should do.'” It can be difficult when you need five yeses to move forward, explains Greg Taylor, who served on the BMSC Management Council in the 2000s, eventually as Chair while the University of Alberta’s Dean of Science. However, he notes that BMSC’s value gets ever higher as hands-on opportunities at home universities have become fewer. BMSC is “one of the most engaging learning opportunities you’ll find,” says Taylor. A partnership of five has both strengths and weaknesses: “To make it work,” he says, “you really need people that understand why it’s such a unique asset.”
That uniqueness was on vivid display in 2005 when NSERC visited to present BMSC with an award for science promotion. At the ceremony, management council members from all five member universities attended. Part way through listening to NSERC’s speech inside the clamshell-shaped Rix Centre, its windows overlooking the inlet, audience attention suddenly waned. A startling background had upstaged the speaker: a humpback whale in the harbour was theatrically breaching. The ceremony paused as all looked on in wide-eyed wonder. (photo: Helen Yip)
Captivating stories of the sea revealing its many mysteries and surprises are often part of the Bamfield experience, explains Lee Weber, current Managing Director of BMSC. Keenly aware of the special magic that makes the collaboratively-run station what it is, “this place,” she says, “is considerably greater than the sum of its parts.”
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