Buying $300 million worth of research excellence

In 2001, the Chrétien government announced the creation of the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) (CRC) programme “to enable Canadian universities, affiliated research institutes and hospitals to become world-class centres of research”.

Fast-forward seven years, and the Harper government upped the ante by creating the Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERCs) (CERC) programme “to attract the world’s most accomplished and promising minds”.

While the reaction of the academic community to the investment in the CRC programme was unanimously positive, the reception of the CERCs has been lukewarm at best.

Full credit for the CRC initiative went to then University of British Columbia president Martha Piper and to Robert Lacroix, rector of the Université de Montréal.

While no university president has been credited yet with ‘selling’ the CERC initiative to government, the one who threw the party in Ottawa to thank the political class for investing in this programme was none other than Indira Samarasekera, president of the University of Alberta.

The president of the University of Toronto, David Naylor, used that occasion to put some pressure on the new scholar-millionaires by enumerating the major discoveries and inventions (insulin, stem cell, pacemakers etc) by his university’s home-grown scholars.

He was more forthcoming recently. “Perhaps some of the new boutique programmes or politicised 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.”


Why is the CRC programme such a success story, while CERC keeps being met with hushed scepticism?

To start with, the CRC programme injected close to 2,000 new positions into Canada’s post-secondary system. It helped universities attract a substantial number of talented foreign researchers. The number of positions was large enough to make a difference in all parts of the country.

There is no measure by which the 19 CERCs announced in the first round of recruitment, and the 10 that are in the works, could have a comparable impact.

The CRC awards were not outlandish – CA$200,000 (US$199,000) per year for a Tier 1 chair, and CA$100,000 for a Tier 2 – yet they were large enough to make a difference in attracting and retaining talent.

The $10 million award per CERC from government over seven years, let alone the matching funds required from universities, is almost irresponsible.

For one, the CERC salaries will have to be rolled into universities’ base budgets at the end of that period. Some even say that there is an unwritten rule or 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.

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

Too few centres

There are not enough CERCs in the programme to make it a game changer. Its incremental value will make no significant difference to Canada’s leading universities, while the prohibitive cost of playing the matching game is too high for those universities that could benefit from a small ‘injection of excellence’.

The CRC programme adapted to the goals, aspirations and priorities of Canada’s universities. It was substantial enough to make a difference across the board, and in most disciplines. The CERCs are focused on four pre-selected priority areas: environmental sciences and technologies; natural resources and energy; health and related life sciences and technologies; and information and communications technologies.

Unlike in the case of CERC, the distribution of the CRCs around the country was based on a clear formula accounting for the research capacity and the level of federal funding for research at each of Canada’s universities.

In the first round of the CERC competition, the University of British Columbia got one chair, the University of Toronto got two, the University of Alberta got four (now down to three) and McGill got none! In the second round, it was the turn of the University of Toronto to be shut out.

The recruitment process for the CRCs was relatively transparent. It was based on a relatively robust peer review. The CERC process, albeit at the university or at the government level, is secretive, mysterious and unpredictable.

The CRC hiring process followed widely accepted best practices at our universities, including guidelines to ensure equal opportunity, fairness and inclusion. That all of the first 19 CERC chairs were male was an early indication that the recruitment process was flawed.

The CRCs attracted and rewarded many of the best, but did not create anomalies, discomfort, entitlement and crushing expectations. It also allowed universities to retain some researchers tempted to leave Canada for greener pastures.

In contrast, the destabilising effect of the incoming CERCs will likely exacerbate retention problems for the ‘equally excellent’ but inadequately funded resident researchers.


The CRC programme 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, which impacted the whole academic community.

The investment in CERC at a time where proven granting programmes such as the Tri-council are left to atrophy is illogical, and potentially alienating for the rest of the research community. Indeed, the first instalment of $28 million per annum for CERC was announced in the same budget that cut $147.9 million from the Tri-council.

Compounding the problem, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council had to earmark $2.5 million from its Discovery Grant Programme for CERC. This is a programme whose funding has been 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.

The government of Canada is to be commended for its intentions and efforts to make its universities more scientifically competitive and relevant on the world stage, but this investment in the CERC programme may have been the wrong way to do it, especially at this point in time.

* Nassif Ghoussoub is professor of mathematics and Distinguished University Scholar at the University of British Columbia.