New Funding Schemes Aim to Retain Top Talent

Reposted from Science Magazine, 25 November 2005

OTTAWA--As the general manager of a winning sports team knows, the secret to success is bringing on a superstar without losing existing talent. So too for university deans, who worry about raids from academic rivals while they are trolling for new talent.

To discourage such campus-hopping, the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) has decided to give institutions a better chance of retaining their prized researchers. It's part of several programmatic changes at the foundation, an independent entity created by the government in 1997 to improve Canada's research infrastructure, as it prepares to spend the last billion dollars of a $3.1 billion endowment. One $262 million program has been tweaked to let universities--who receive block grants based on an assessment of faculty productivity--provide infrastructure for established as well as newly hired professors. CFI has also changed the rules for a core fund, which is preparing for a $276 million competition, to allow previous recipients to come back to the table for another bite.

"If we hadn't done this, the danger would be a bit of a revolving door," says CFI president Eliot Phillipson, who believes that retention of faculty has become as critical an issue in academia as recruitment. Allowing previous recipients to apply for upgrades, he adds, also acknowledges the rapid pace of technological change.

University officials say the changes are a sign that Phillipson, the former dean of medicine at the University of Toronto (U of T), has been listening since taking charge of CFI in February 2004. Other new wrinkles include a $51 million fund to establish a national high-performance computing system and, possibly, other platforms in so-called enabling technologies such as digital data storage, retrieval, and publication.

James Turk, head of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, doubts that the changes will curb mobility. "A lot of academics look to move up the ladder," he says. "I don't think this is going to change that dynamic." But Michelle Gauthier of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada sees the changes as sound business practices that are long overdue. "If you look at any kind of standard for a solid management of an organization," she says, "keeping good people is as important as attracting new ones."

The new programs come with at least one string attached: Only 20% of an award will be available for operating and maintaining the new equipment, instruments, or research facility being funded. In the past, that share was 30%. Still, the approach "allows universities to customize their [spending] to [meet] their particular circumstances," says Judith Chadwick, director of U of T's government research infrastructure program. And because the size of U of T's block grant will more than double, to $33 million, Chadwick isn't complaining. "We're thrilled," she says. "I'm not looking a gift horse in the mouth."

Wayne Kondro writes from Ottawa.

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