Research excellence fund launched, academics cool

Universities have been enthusiastic but academics appear unconvinced about the Canada First Research Excellence Fund or CFREF, a CAD1.5 billion (US$1.3 billion) initiative over 10 years that was announced in the budget earlier this year and launched by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on 4 December.

Last Tuesday the government also published a renewed Science Technology and Innovation Strategy, which reviewed Canada’s research and innovation strengths and added emerging fields – including advanced manufacturing and agriculture – to existing priorities.

The main point of disagreement is over whether the fund represents government commitment to science, with the government obviously saying it does, universities welcoming a hefty injection of cash that will support top researchers, but some academics saying that the government had slashed general research funding to support a few research ‘stars’.

Launching the CFREF at Toronto’s IBM Canada Software Lab, Harper said that the CAD1.5 billion investment would fund universities to build research excellence destinations that would enable them to attain global leadership in fields of strength.

“Canada’s ability to attract top talent and research partnerships requires its world-class institutions to have the ability to seize emerging opportunities on the global stage by capitalising on their proven strengths,” Harper said.

The fund

Research supported by the fund will need to align with the government’s science, technology and innovation priority research areas – environment and agriculture, health and life sciences, natural resources and energy, information and communications technologies, and advanced manufacturing.

The CFREF will be available to all post-secondary institutions on a competitive, peer-reviewed basis, with institutions free to determine the scope and scale of proposals.

“The Fund will consider large, potentially multi-institutional initiatives as well as smaller, single-institution proposals,” said a release from the prime minister’s office.

It will be administered by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada on behalf of the country’s three granting agencies – itself, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

In the first competition, institutions will compete for up to CAD350 million in awards over seven years, with applications due in March 2015. A second competition will be launched by 2016. Grants will be awarded on the basis of scientific merit, quality and strategic relevance.

University enthusiasm

The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada or AUCC, which represents 97 public and private not-for-profit universities and degree-level colleges, greeted the launch with enthusiasm.

The association said it had worked with government and universities countrywide to develop the programme, stressing the importance of open and peer-reviewed competition.

“This bold new programme will position Canada as a leader in international research. It will support Canada’s top research talent and build new global links,” said David Barnard, president of the University of Manitoba and chair of the AUCC, in a statement.

“University leaders welcome the tremendous potential of this initiative to engage Canada’s next generation of top young researchers in globally significant research programmes and networks.”

Paul Davidson, president of AUCC, said the fund would help Canadian universities to “collaborate with global research leaders and better translate knowledge and ideas into the national and international marketplace”.

Academics cool

But there has been sustained criticism of the government’s science policies in academia.

Academics and researchers, reported the Montreal Gazette, believe that the CFREF “solidifies the federal government’s support for targeted research over basic research as well as the private sector’s influence over the direction of research in this country”.

It quoted James Turk, former executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, as saying that the fund “gives the private sector veto power over who gets grants” – something Ed Holder, minister of state for science and technology, denied.

Turk said that while the government was spending CAD1.5 billion, it was “spending it badly”.

Max Roy, president of the Fédération québécoise des professeures et professeurs d’université, told the Montreal Gazette that the fund would promote applied research that served companies rather than basic research, which advances science over the long term.

The fund signalled a “radical paradigm shift” in the funding of university research, Roy said, and would only bolster some ‘star’ researchers.