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Sowing the Seeds of Science

Over the past few decades, Canada has been battling the infamous "brain drain," losing its best scientific minds to other countries. But the tide is turning. In 2000, a federal initiative got under way with $900 million set aside by the government for the establishment of 2000 research professorships, known as Canada Research Chairs (CRCs), in universities across the country. Four years and 1164 appointments into this program, it remains at the centre of a national strategy to make Canada one of the global leaders in research and development (R&D). Hopes are high that Canada will be among the top five countries in the world, in terms of R&D performance, by 2010.

According to CRC Executive Director René Durocher, CRC is a big hit with scientists and is making Canada competitive in the scientific global arena. The key goal of this program has been to give Canadian universities and their affiliated research institutes and hospitals the chance to attract and retain top researchers in a diverse range of disciplines. Durocher believes that the beauty of the program is that it is visionary, and it values pure science. "Universities don't necessarily ask that we give chairs to people who are going to do applied sciences with a high product return; they let us give it to the very best in any field," he explains.

Program Outline

Nominees for CRC spots come from a wide range of fields, including sciences and engineering (45%), health and medicine (35%), and social sciences and humanities (20%). The universities themselves select potential candidate researchers whose work falls in line with the institutes' strategic research plan and "meets the rigorous criteria of excellence." The number of chairs a university can hold is directly related to the past funding performance of existing faculty.

Smaller universities with limited resources are also saying that the program makes a big difference by making them more competitive. The latest statistics (April 2004) show that five to seven chairs exist on smaller campuses, representing about 6% of all chairs assigned. It is up to the universities to explain in their nominations how they want to invest in their chairs and how that investment will fit into their strategy. "As a result, sometimes they need to earn more from other funding agencies," says Durocher.

By creating enticing faculty positions for both domestic and international scientific talent, the nation's 64 universities have the opportunity to achieve the highest levels of excellence and become world-class research centers. "The government of Canada's investment in researchers through the CRC allows them to further their careers and supervise and train the next generation of scientists," adds Durocher.

Two kinds of chairs have been set up. Tier 1 chairs are for senior, established researchers who are recognized by their colleagues as world leaders in their fields. Tenured for 7 years, the positions come with an annual $200,000 stipend and are renewable. Meanwhile, Tier 2 chairs are for younger, upcoming researchers who show promise of becoming world class in their fields. Tier 2 chairs last 5 years, carry a $100,000 annual stipend, and are renewable only once.

An international academy of reviewers assesses all incoming applications and makes recommendations to the CRC Steering Committee on who should get funding. This committee is made up of the presidents of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), and the deputy minister of Industry Canada.

A Highly Competitive Process

Durocher says that many factors go into choosing a recipient: "When we're looking for a chair, we're not only looking for good research and publications but also for opportunities for mentoring and training top graduate students and being successful at obtaining grant money."

Program statistics show that up until now, there has been a 90% success rate in filling CRC positions awarded to nominees and universities. "The universities are sending us the right people, and only a small number of applicants actually turn it down," says Durocher. "Usually, it is simply due to personal reasons, like family commitments."

Durocher points out that the chairs directly contribute to training students at both the Ph.D. and postdoc levels; recipients and their host universities receive other benefits, too. On top of the CRC award, chair holders are eligible for infrastructure support from CFI, which can kick in $200,000 to $300,000 to help holders acquire state-of-the-art equipment essential to their work. As such, it's common for chairs to have 15 to 20 people working around them in their laboratory. "They are usually leaders, and they inspire others," states Durocher. "Everybody tries to be the best that they can be."

Asked what the future holds for the CRC program after the allotted 2000 chairs are filled in 2006, Durocher says that the program will continue to flourish, although some kinks must be worked out. For example, a very wide gender gap exists among chair holders. With women occupying only 12.7% of the Tier 1 positions and 22.7% of the more junior Tier 2 slots, Durocher insists that there is much room for improvement. It is up to the universities to determine whom they want to nominate, and Durocher has asked them to look for more women to fill the CRC spots in the future. Already, the number of women in the CRC program overall has risen, from 17.5% to 20% in the last cycle of competitions. "We are still putting a lot of pressure on the universities, so while I still see that there won't be a total equilibrium, there will be a balance that is representative of the universities," states Durocher.

Brain Gain

One of the biggest successes of this initiative from the very beginning has been the scores of international scientists coming to Canada. About 28% of chairs today are coming from countries such as the United States (201), United Kingdom (34), and Australia (17). The government is particularly pleased that formerly expatriate scientists are taking advantage of the program and returning to Canada. As of April 2004, more than 160 researchers have returned and set up shop, thanks to the CRC program. Many left while doing postgraduate studies or postdocs, with the hopes of returning someday. The CRC program has given them the opportunity to do so.

Alain Bellerive is one current chair holder who has made the switch. A physicist who studies elementary subatomic particles and their role in the evolution of the universe, Bellerive holds the position of Canada Research Chair in Experimental Particle Physics at Carleton University in Ottawa and works closely with the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO). His research group at Carleton has received more than $50 million in support from CFI to continue their work with SNOLAB. The journal Science rated the group's work as one of the top two scientific results in 2001 and 2002.

After obtaining a Ph.D. from McGill University in Montreal in 1997, Bellerive sought opportunities to work with the best particle physicists and facilities in the world. "Unfortunately, the '90s were a hard time for many scientists in Canada," he says. "With few funding opportunities, many of the brightest scientists were leaving my field." Seeing that his future was limited, he packed his bags and began work as a research associate at the University of Chicago.

"Many scientists have a preference to come back to Canada, but there's a dead end," says Bellerive. "I think this is really bad, because we raise and educate them in Canada, and then finally, when it's time to collect the fruit, they leave."

The desire to return home one day was always there for Bellerive, but his research ambitions and a lack of funding in Canada required him to look abroad. He lucked out in 2001, when he chanced upon an ad from Carleton for the CRC position. "I felt like I won a lottery, because I always wanted to come back," he says.

Why does Bellerive think he was chosen for the CRC program? Besides a strong publication run and international experience, he believes his enthusiasm was key. "I get up each and every day to do what some people might call 'work.' For me it's fun. I think they saw the motivation in me and the spark to work and have passion and excitement for what I do."

For Durocher, however, enthusiasm isn't all that matters: "We are looking for the best of the best within and outside of Canada."

For more information on the Canada Chair Research program,

visit the program's Web site.

Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor of Next Wave and may be reached at