Buying $190 million worth of excellence

At the invitation of U. Alberta’s President, Indira Samarasekera, the who’s who of Canada’s political, business, academic, and media elite converged yesterday on the Fairmont Chateau Laurier in Ottawa to celebrate the establishment of the Canada Excellence Research Chair Program (CERC). The official invitation begins with, “Thanks to the CERC program, 19 of the world’s best researchers have chosen Canada”. The most fun speech of the night was given by one of the chair holders. “I’m told, I am not supposed to say that I came here for the money”!

The background: In 2008, the Government created the CERC Program to establish up to 20 prestigious research chairs in universities across Canada. An investment of $28 million a year was established to attract and retain the world’s most accomplished and promising minds.  Each CERC holder is awarded $10 million over seven years to pursue his (now we know that they won’t be any “her”) research program.  Four priority areas were outlined for these chairs: Environmental sciences and technologies; natural resources and energy; health and related life sciences and technologies; and information and communications technologies.

One of the new U of A Canada Excellence Chairs is Thomas Thundat. His area of interest is “oil sands molecular engineering”. As someone tweeted the other day: “It can’t get more targeted than that”.

For some strange reasons, UBC got one, UT got two, U. Alberta got 4 and McGill got zilch! This might explain why Indira Samarasekera was throwing the party. After all, she has lots to be thankful for from the federal government.  The $40 million for the CERCs come on top of the more than $100 million from the Knowledge Infrastructure Program (KIP). The U of A now ranks second in total research funding, behind only U of T and up from fifth in 2006.

I heard that UT President Naylor piled on the pressure on our new scholar-millionaires by enumerating the major discoveries and inventions made by UT’s homegrown scholars (Insulin, Stem Cell, Pacemakers, etc…). The pressure might soon go up one more notch if UT’s currently short-listed biochemists get a Nobel Prize. UBC President Toope talked about our own late Michael Smith, whose humility and aversion to pomp and ceremony should also add to the pressure.

Now one can never argue against government’s decisions to provide additional support for research. But bear in mind however that the $28 million per annum for the CERCs and the $2-billion for KIP, were announced in the same budget that cut $147.9-million from the Tri-council.

Compounding the problem, NSERC has recently earmarked $2.5-million from the Discovery Grant Program for the Canada Research Excellence Chairs. This is a program whose funding has been essentially stagnant for years even though the number of grant holders has risen from 7,886 in 2001 to a high of 10,340 in 2008, mostly because of the (welcome) arrival of hundreds of Canada Research Chairs into the system. It currently stands at 9,948.

Welcome to Canada CERCs. Our hopes are high.

This entry was posted in Op-eds, R&D Policy. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Buying $190 million worth of excellence

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