Tag Archives: Steven Chase

Canada goes on a science spending spree (of sorts)

The Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) programme (part of the 2008 Canadian federal budget) has announced 19 new researchers are coming to Canada. According to the CERC FAQs (frequently asked questions) page, each researcher in this programme will receive,

$1.4 million annual award paid to the chairholders for seven years [which] will allow researchers to build the teams and acquire the tools they need to conduct world-class research.

Having your funding guaranteed for seven years is a highly attractive proposition, especially with the current economic situation. (Idle thought: I am curious as to the inside story about why only 19 of 20 grants were awarded.)

I understand we have achieved quite a coup and some extraordinary and accomplished scientists will be setting up shop in this country. Kudos to the government for the establishment of guaranteed funding for these scientific endeavours. Here’s Tony Clement (Minister for Industry Canada) offering an enthusiastic endorsement and back pat for his programme, first from the news release on the Industry website,

“The Government of Canada recognizes the importance of supporting leading-edge research and world-class researchers,” said Minister Clement. “The CERC program confirms Canada’s standing as a global centre of excellence in research and higher learning. [emphasis mine]This program supports our government’s commitment to ensuring Canada’s future economic growth by investing in innovation and research capacity in priority areas.”

then (from the article in Globe and Mail by Elizabeth Church and accessed through the Canadian Science Policy Research Centre),

“Canada has to become more than ever a magnet for talent,” said Industry Minister Tony Clement, in Toronto to name the successful applicants. The announcement, he said, builds on other federal initiatives, such investments in campus building projects as part of its stimulus spending and the Vanier scholarships for graduate students. All are central, he said, to the government’s innovation agenda.

“Talk is cheap. We are actually doing,” Mr. Clement said later in an interview, referring to critics in the science community who say the Harper government has not committed to research in the same way as U.S. President Barack Obama and other foreign leaders.

So let’s review, this programme has attracted 19 stellar scientists. That’s very nice but what about all the other scientists in Canada? Are they going to get guaranteed funding? Then there’s this, Where is the money for this CERC programme coming from? I found an answer of sorts in the UK’s Guardian Newspaper (Fears of brain drain as renowned British scientists move to Canada by Ian Sample),

Britain is to lose several of its foremost scientists next year following a recruitment drive to attract top brains to Canada.

The four researchers will leave their posts at UK universities for better-funded positions in institutions across the country.

The British researchers won four C$20m (£13m) awards created by the Canadian government, the most by any country outside the US, which is to lose nine scientists to the scheme. The C$20m is awarded over seven years and comprises C$10m from the scheme and $C10m from the university. [emphasis mine]

So, 19 x $20M = $180M/year x 7 years = $1.26B with 1/2 from the federal budget and the other 1/2 (or more?) from university budgets (much of it federal money).

ETA (May 21, 2010): Rob Annan (Don’t leave Canada behind) kindly corrected my arithmetic as per this (ps. quick note on the math re. funding. It’s 19 researchers x $1.7M annually ($3.4 accounting for matching funds). The $20M is the total commitment over seven years.) The rest of what Rob had to say is in the Comment section.

In another Globe and Mail article (accessed through the Canadian Science Policy Centre) by Steven Chase and Elizabeth Church,

For Ottawa, it was one of the biggest bets on scientific research in a generation. But for the man at the centre of Canada’s worldwide drive to recruit top scientists, it was a “ballsy” play that at times resembled a bidding war for NHL free agents.

Derek Burney said in some cases foreign universities and employers counter-bid furiously to keep star researchers during the just-completed global talent scout for Canada Excellence Research Chairs. The effort cost Ottawa $190-million in grants and netted 19 renowned scientists who are moving to Canada.

“It [was] almost like a hockey negotiation where you are trying to entice a player from another team. And the other team wants to hang on to them, and so they offer more money,” said Mr. Burney, who heads the selection board of the Canada Excellence Research Chair program set up by the Harper government.

During a global recession when deficit pressures would appear to demand restraint on all fronts, Canada instead travelled the world with a chequebook – looking to bulk up on the scientific innovation it hopes will strengthen economic foundations here at home. [emphases mine]

I’m glad to see that they are keeping tight control of the purse strings (where’s a sarcasm symbol when you need one?). Meanwhile in the UK, Sample goes on to note a possible reason for the British losses,

The moves come after several senior scientists in Britain warned that a brain drain was imminent as the new government prepares to make swingeing cuts in public spending that are likely to have a heavy impact on research funding.

At least one of the other researchers comes to us from California, a US state which is in such dire financial straits that there’s been talk of bankruptcy.

Two observations. First, I notice that none of these recruits are from Canada. I guess there’s an assumption that research excellence exists only outside of the country.

Second, “Talk is cheap” (Clement’s comment) is something that’s said when there has been too much talk and no (or not enough) action. I don’t think it fits a situation where there has been no talk.

In case it got missed, I have mixed feelings about this latest development. I hope it works out well and that the government doesn’t rest on this accomplishment but goes on to address Canada’s need for science policy, science education, science literacy, science communication, public engagement, encouragement for business support of science, and support for the academic science which is practiced in this country.

ETA (May 21, 2010): For another take on the matter, read Sumitra Rajagopalan’s opinion piece in the May 21, 2010 online edition of the Globe and Mail, When science gets political, long-term knowledge is lost. From the article,

Since Canada has lagged behind its Western counterparts in the manufacture and sale of high-tech products, this focus has been welcomed by industry. But this government’s interest isn’t really “applied science” but a more short-sighted “utilitarian science” – technologies that can quickly solve immediate, narrowly defined problems, rather than long-term investments in building knowledge. Worse, we are beginning to see an intertwining of scientific priorities with politics.

These trends are very apparent in some of the CERC choices. The biomedical and computing research chairs are beyond reproach, but some of the other choices reflect a narrow, utilitarian focus.

She goes on to thoughtfully support her point. I would highly recommend reading this, if you are interested in the issue.