Canada Offers Golden Research Chairs

OTTAWA--Since assuming office in 2006, Canada's minority Conservative government has argued that it's more important to fund the best and the brightest in designated areas than to spread the wealth across the entire spectrum of scientific activity. Today, it reinforced that message in a new 2008-2009 budget that will shower 20 scientific superstars from within Canada and abroad with $10 million apiece over 7 years.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said that the government hopes the new program, called the Canada Research Chairs Program, will attract some of the world's "keenest minds" to migrate to Canadian universities. They will fill slots in the four disciplines designated as priorities in the government's May 2007 science blueprint: the environment, natural resources and energy, health, and information and communication technologies.

It has yet to be determined whether the chairs will be selected through competitions administered by the country's three research granting councils or whether a government department such as Industry Canada will oversee the program, including selection of the recipients. "It's still possible that the councils will run the program, but Industry Canada wants a say. None of this has been determined yet," said an official at a background briefing on the budget. Finance officials like this one, who are made available to the media on the condition of anonymity, conceded that a scientific program administered by a government department, in which recipients aren't selected by traditional peer review, might be less attractive to blue-chip international scientists.

In a budget self-billed as "prudent, disciplined, and realistic," Flaherty also announced that the nation's three granting councils each would receive increases of roughly 5%. But again, the monies came with a string attached, as each was "directed" to spend the new cash in select areas.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council base budget will rise by $34 million, to $709 million, with the monies pegged for research in the "automotive, manufacturing, forestry, and fishing industries." The Canadian Institutes of Health Research budget will go up $34 million to $733 million, with the monies intended for research on "health needs of northern communities, health problems associated with environmental conditions, and food and drug safety." The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council budget will grow by $12 million, to $249 million, with an emphasis on "how the environment affects the lives of Canadians and of the social and economic development needs of northern communities."

Finance officials stressed that the allocations must be directed at priority areas rather than simply pumped into core operating grant programs. "The government has made it clear that they want this money to support the kind of research that should be supported," says one official. "And the councils will have to answer to the Treasury Board if they don't."

Doctoral students will also be beneficiaries of the move toward more elitism. Scholarships named in honor of war hero and former Governor General Georges P. Vanier will be created to attract 500 of "the best doctoral students from here and around the world to study in Canada" each year. Each student will be eligible for $50,000 per year for up to 3 years.

Among other research measures was a $15 million increase, to $330 million, in the annual allocation to universities to cover the indirect costs of research; a $140 million outlay for new competitions at Genome Canada, including "a major collaborative international genomics project"; and the creation of new international study stipends of up to $6000 for 250 graduate students to spend a semester at universities abroad.