The “Canada Excellence Research Chairs” program is a bad idea

“Perhaps some of the new boutique programs or politicized one-offs so beloved by governments will enable importation of a current or soon-to-be Nobel laureate. One can dimly imagine the cacophony of misguided self-congratulation that would accompany that ersatz milestone. In reality, the generation of a succession of home-grown winners of pinnacle research prizes is the measure that matters most. That pattern would signal breadth, depth and sustainability of excellence.” That was David Naylor, the President of the University of Toronto. He was –no doubt– commenting on the Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) program, way before UT was shut out (mercifully, willfully or grudgingly?) from the latest round of announcements. This was also happening just as the country was being informed of the “thanks but no thanks” of Patrik Rorsman declining the $10M chair” at the University of Alberta, less than a year after his appointment there.

Why am I writing about this now? Well, because UBC is in the process of trying to find $31M in order to match the two approved CERCs for its Faculty of Science, a task that will neither be easy nor without consequences for the rest of the university.

The Canada Research Chair (CRC) program initiated by Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Finance Minister Paul Martin was a grand idea, a game changer for the country’s research effort, a win for Canada’s scientific future. The Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) program that the Harper government launched is none of the above. It is a royal waste of taxpayers’ money, a drain for our universities’ resources, a colossal mistake.

The CRC program injected close to 2000 new positions into Canada’s post-secondary system. It helped our universities attract a substantial number of foreign talent, and allowed us to retain some of those tempted to leave Canada for greener pastures. There is no measure in which the 19 CERCs announced in the first round of recruitment and the ten who are in the works, could have a comparable impact. To the contrary, the destabilizing effect of the incoming CERCs will not be helping our retention problem with the “equally excellent” resident researchers.

The number of CRCs was large enough to make a difference across the board, in all regions of the country but also in most disciplines. There are not enough CERCs in that program to make it a game changer. Its incremental value will make no significant difference to Canada’s leading universities (some at UT say that their internal “nominations failed due to existing strength!”), while the prohibitive cost of playing the matching game is too high for those universities who could benefit from a small “injection of excellence.”

The recruitment process for the CRCs was relatively transparent. We all knew how it was happening, who is recruiting whom, and who is approving whom. It was also based on a relatively robust review by peers. The CERC’s process, albeit at the university or at the government level, is secretive, mysterious and frankly bizarre.

The CRC recruitment process followed existing hiring guidelines at our universities, including  widely accepted standards for equal opportunity, fairness and inclusion. That all of the first 19 CERCs were male, was an early indication that the recruitment process was faulty, regardless of how it was later justified.

The universities are required to commit a certain level of support for their CRCs, but the scale of the matching process was neither as draconian nor as ruinous as the one for the CERCs. This cannot and will not necessarily translate into a proportional amount of incremental excellence.

The CRC awards were not outlandish ($200K per year for a senior chair, and $100K for a junior one), yet were large enough to make a difference in attracting and retaining talent. The $10M award per CERC from government over 7 years, let alone the matching required from universities, is irresponsible. Indeed, the CERCs’ salaries will have to be rolled into the universities’ base budgets at the end of that period. Some even say that there is an unwritten rule/expectation that CERC dollars are not to be used for the chair’s salary, in which case base budget funding will be allocated in advance for these positions. With the current financial state of Canada’s universities, this re-allocation will not be without consequences for the rest of the academy.

The CRC program was initiated during a period where the country’s finances were in order, thus allowing the government to follow it up with other investments in research and development such as the CFI program, which impacted the whole academic community.  The investment in the CERCs at a time where proven granting programs such as the Tri-council are left to atrophy is anachronistic, illogical, and potentially alienating for the rest of the research community.

The CRCs attracted and rewarded many of the best among us, but did not create anomalies, discomfort, entitlement, and crushing expectations. In contrast, the CERCs seem to be causing all of the above. Here is one of the mildest excerpts from an academic blog“with all the resources (including space, support staff, teams of post-docs and grad students, etc.) that these positions will be lavished with, it will be interesting to see if these people deliver proportionately on their research promise. At funding levels (including salaries) at least 10 times higher than most other scientists and engineers at the University, this should be the expectation.”

We commend the government for its intentions and efforts to make Canada more competitive and scientifically relevant on the world stage, but this investment in the CERC program is the wrong way to do it.

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7 Responses to The “Canada Excellence Research Chairs” program is a bad idea

  1. Arts Squared says:

    The very idea of “excellence” that has come to dominate the Canadian academy needs to be challenged. It leads, as you suggest, to the idea that it is perfectly acceptable to buy “excellent” researchers from elsewhere, and buy them at the expense of Canadian scholars, but it deserves a more general challenge. In his posthumous 1996 book The University in Ruins, Bill Readings writes about the rhetoric and “accounting” of “excellence” in the “posthistorical” consumerist University as triumphing over the nurturing of the University as a place for the cultivation of thinkers and thought. It is not just (as you note) that certain institutions get “shut out” out of such Excellent schemes; in the first two rounds of this program, certain disciplines have been completely shut out. The Humanities, for example, have not been deemed of sufficient merit or importance to earn any such figures of Excellence — not one. It is only when we start to consider the costs of the allocations of resources in disciplinary terms that we’ll develop a full sense of just how colossal a mistake this form of investment is to the Canadian academy.

  2. Steven Siciliano says:

    I think the CERC program can be very effective if used wisely by the University. The key question is to how to use it wisely. You compared the CERC to the CRC program and I think that Universities that saw the CERCs as ‘super’ CRCs are likely not happy with the results of their CERCs. The CERCs need to be used in a completely different fashion.

    Let’s imagine that you want to either (a) create a worldwide presence in an area in which your University is not very strong or (b) you want to take an existing worldclass strength and catapult your program to the top handful in the world.

    What you need is (i) a research leader and (ii) a host of new appointments tightly focused in this area. This new appointments can build on your existing strength or be used to develop the new area of expertise depending of if you are pursuing (a) or (b) above.

    In a CERC process, the University makes a commitment to do these things and typically hands over the responsibility for (ii) to the CERC leader. This circumvents the Integrated Planning process as well as most collegiate decision making. However, if as an institution, the academy has decided to embark on this CERC path, then hopefully, everyone understands where this ends up.

    In my opinion, the CERC idea is a good one. However, it does highlight that at most institutions Integrated Planning is not effectively engaging faculty in decisions. For example, UBC just got two. Great! But do the UBC faculty really want to invest $60 million in these two specific areas. My guess is that this wasn’t vetted in anyone’s Integrated Plan (note that at my institution, it was in our IP, and our CERCs have transformed the research landscape in their areas).

    Your argument suggests that the research environment at UBC is now a zero-sum gain, i.e. CERC gain is x Department’s loss. I hope it isn’t as UBC is one of our premier Universities. But I think whether the CERCs benefit or hinder UBC is really about implementation of the concept and not about a bad concept.

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  4. Jake Sannikoff says:

    I am convinced that both programs (CRC and CERC) are counterproductive and serve to ensure a comfortable (to the point of luxurious) and stress-free academic future of a few at the expense of all the rest of us (literally). Within a few years of its introduction, the seeming progressive idea of infusing Academia with a few vigorously selected high-profile researchers degraded to elitism, segregation, and rapid decline of Canadian fundamental research. The level of support our academic “elite” has been enjoying courtesy of the Canadian taxpayer is NOT justified by their productivity, whereas their chronic absenteeism and detachment from teaching and service have certainly added to the plate of those who used to be their colleagues.

  5. With the passage of years, I have come to concur with those that think NSERC is going down the wrong path with the CRC and CERC programs. What may have sounded good in theory as relates to the CRC program introduced in 2001, in practice has been twisted away from the straight-and-narrow on more than a few occasions as the years have gone by. At my university, currently with only 12 CRC positions in total, we have had what I consider an unusually large number of junior Tier 2 CRCs pursuing full-time university administrative positions while holding their CRC position. As a result, we have now had not one but two Deans of our Faculty of Engineering being Tier 2 CRCs, in addition to two Associate Deans in Engineering and one Associate Dean in Science. It is clear that these “dual role” individuals were and are using the cachet of the CRC position to advance their personal administrative careers within the university. I’m just guessing here, but I don’t think the founders of the CRC program had anticipated such an eventuality, or other instances of human nature coming to the fore.

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