Game changer—big bucks, big brains

Søren Rysgaard will leave Greenland for the University of Manitoba, and David Barber of the Centre for Earth Observation Science


Photograph by Ian McCausland

Adrien Owen will move from Cambridge to the University of Western Ontario. He’ll use the best magnetic resonance imager in Canada to study severely brain-damaged patients for clues that might someday restore mobility and communication.

Søren Rysgaard will move from Greenland to the University of Manitoba. He’ll lead a massive buildup of that school’s Arctic science centre.

Younès Messaddeq is moving from São Paulo, Brazil, to Laval University. He’ll develop new types of glass and fibre cables for next-generation communications networks.
Ian Gardner will move to the University of Prince Edward Island from the University of California, Davis. He’ll work on limiting disease among fish stocks.

Each of these men, and 15 more, is the recipient of a $10-million, seven-year Canada Excellence Research Chair from the federal government. The 19 CERC chairs announced on May 17 have a clear goal: pay top dollar to poach first-rate scientific talent from around the world and bring it to Canada.

For a decade, successive federal governments have paid for roughly 2,000 Canada Research Chairs Canada-wide. Every large university has a dozen or more of those, and they’ve reinvigorated research in the country. But the CERCs were designed to go after big game, the kind of scholar who can help transform the school that lands him.

A $10-million research pot for one lead investigator is “unprecedented. It’s almost frightening,” Robert Boyd, who’s moving to the University of Ottawa from the University of Rochester in New York state, told me. Boyd’s thing is quantum optics and pho­tonics, which means he deals with the interaction of light and materials at sub-microscopic scales. Like most investigators, Boyd is used to spending a third of his time filling out grant applications. Take away that obstacle and a researcher’s only limits are those imposed by his ingenuity. “You have taken away all of the excuses,” he says.

The announcement of the CERC recipients caps a search process that took more than a year. At first, universities submitted projects only, with no names attached. The search committee was looking for projects that matched a school’s existing strengths and fit within the Harper government’s four priority research areas: environmental science; natural resources and energy; health and life sciences; and information and communications technologies. (I’m not a fan of governments trying to pick winners in research, but if they insist, it helps to have categories as broad as that.) In the late stages of the competition, the program appears to have sparked a global bidding war for serious talent. When home institutions heard their best scholars were in play they launched counterbids. The University of Toronto had a shot at four CERC chairs, but Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology managed to hang on to two of them. To strengthen their own bids, Canadian candidate universities sweetened the pot not just with money from other sources but with really ambitious research programs, backed with extra bodies.

Boyd, the quantum optics guy at Ottawa, will be joined by three more new faculty, dozens of grad students and post-docs. His $10-million CERC will be part of a $25-million total project budget. Western gave Adrien Owen’s wife, Jessica Grahn, a faculty post where she can pursue her award-winning study into the ways the brain processes musical information. Owen’s own team will grow by five or six faculty members, a few post-docs and “tons of grad students,” UWO VP of research Ted Hewitt told me. But perhaps the biggest transformation will take place at the University of Manitoba, which will use Rysgaard’s arrival as the spur to build an extra floor of a building and staff it with faculty, research associates and support staff, growing the university’s Centre for Earth Observation Science from 17 to 100 people. That kind of effort can change a university.

Every one of the 19 new CERC investigators was working overseas. By my count only two are Canadians; the rest are foreign heavyweights leaving home to move here. The simultaneous departure of four British investigators produced a nervous headline about “brain drain” in the Guardian.

The only criteria determining the winners were academic excellence within those four priority areas. That led to outcomes that will surprise and upset a lot of observers. Not a single CERC chair is a woman. Montreal’s four universities were shut out, an outcome an administrator in another city found “astonishing.” The social sciences and humanities, which employ more university profs and attract more students than the hard sciences, got nothing out of this exercise. If CERC were the sum of Canada’s university research effort those outcomes wouldn’t be acceptable.

But it isn’t. The lower-tier Canada Research Chairs are spread more equitably among disciplines. The new Vanier Graduate Scholarships go roughly equally to men and women, and more to Canadians than to outsiders. The Conservatives inherited a strong effort in science and technology from the Liberals. They’ve pushed it forward smartly. “I don’t see a downside to this,” Norm Halden, the dean of the faculty of the environment at the University of Manitoba, told me.

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Game changer—big bucks, big brains

  1. Can't help but think that this sort of practical science will play much better with the average Canadian than a spate of dubious humanities studies right now. Not that we don't need inputs from the humanities, but right now, practical trumps theory in most peoples minds…thus, most peoples desire for the right person for these chairs over forced gender equality.

    • I know this is snark, but you don't help your case much when you misspell "people's" twice in one sentence.

  2. Sweet. This is how to play in the big leagues. It's about time Canada started going for gold instead of just trying to get near the podium with all the politically correct checkboxes ticked.

    • It's cheaper to grow your own but there is a place for bringing in established talent if:

      1. They stay and don't just make it a seven year sabbatical on our dime.
      2. The shut-out of equivalent home-grown talent doesn't take it upon themselves to jump ship to another country.

      $10 million over 7 years sounds a lot but these guys are going to be writing as many grants as ever as the chairs are not renewable.

  3. One small correction suggestion for Wells: I think you mean "sub-micron", not "sub-microscopic" in reference to Boyd's work with photonic crystals. They (photonic crystals – I don't know about Boyd's specifically) can generally be imaged with a SEM (scanning electron microscope) – and hence aren't "sub-microscopic" – since the features are typically on the 50-100nm scale. If it's too small to be viewed in a SEM, it's probably also too small to fabricate since one uses e-beam lithography (i.e. the beam from a SEM) to pattern these devices.

    • To tie this off – I asked Boyd about the feature size on his NLO photonic crystals – they're quarter-wavelength in the visible, so on the 100nm scale. Sub-micron, not sub-microscopic.

  4. Not to be difficult, but can't we do better here in the comments than all the usual politicized nonsense? Nobody benefits from our playing all the old talking points in all the tired debates.

    I mean, PW writes a cool article, it gets hijacked by a thread about identity politics, and he points out that identity politics isn't really the point, and then the next thread features…wait for it…identity politics!

  5. This is tremendously exciting. It's about time that Canada experienced a high-profile "brain gain" in the sciences. Hopefully Inkless will continue to keep tabs on the ambitious research programs of these world-class scientists.

  6. What happens when the grants expire in seven years? Will these universities have the resources to retain these researchers? If the arrival of a top researcher can transform a university, does that transformation persist after the researcher leaves?

    • By then, they should have established competitive research grants (which is why the idea of them avoiding spending time writing applications is nonsense). There are several US universities that offer $10 million as start-up grants to some investigators. In addition, the universities were judged in part on their plan for sustainability. Of course, a Chair could leave the country at the end of their term but that's true of anyone.

  7. One of the more intelligent critiques of the CERC program is this article by Sumitra Rajagopalan in today's Globe and Mail: http://tinyurl.com/22tkepc
    She makes some good points about the weaknesses inherent in the Conservative's "focus on product-oriented “applied” research while skimping on basic research". And note Ms. Rajagopalan is coming from an applied science background. I suspect she isn't alone, in her opinions on the efficacy of the CERC program, in the Canadian science community.

    • Can you just appreciate what is being done on the scientific field without being so negative. Correct me if I am wrong but you may be one of those (like Igghead) who criticize everything the government does. I for one says go for more practical and applied sciences. Why do you define someone as "more intelligent critiques" as compared to what and whose standard, yours? Are you one of those snobs who belong to the so called "intellectual class"? If you are, then we ignorants apologize for offending your intellectual sensibilities.

      • Firing up the culture war eh Adriadne? Give it a rest.

      • You may want to reduce the steroid dosage a bit there, Ariadne.

        I would have pointed out this (good and not overly-negative) opinion article regardless of who introduced the CERC program, the Conservatives or the Liberals. Since we invest relatively so little in science in this country, any funding program is going to be open to detailed scrutiny by the science community. But I guess, from the Conservative point-of-view, questioning anything done by the federal government is beyond reproach? Sorry, that's not how I look at our government.

    • Remind me when the complaint was filed?

      • Ah. Guess I poked around too much. The correct answer is May 7, 2003. Which means the complaint was launched over the program as designed while Jean Chrétien was prime minister and remained outstanding during the entire time Paul Martin was prime minister, before being settled in mediation within months after Stephen Harper became prime minister.

        • And so? This wasn't a knock on the Harper government, but a knock on the process.

          • You seem so convinced that it's all about "systemic discrimination". Does the Nobel Foundation similarly discriminate? 156 individuals have received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, yet only four of these scientists are women.

          • So even a century ago there was no discrimination against women? Go on, pull the other one. It wasn't even systemic for quite a while.

            @Paul, in case I wasn't clear earlier, none of these equitable outcomes merely happened. It's been a continual struggle, and as the CERC mess has indicated, it's far from over.

          • That's not an answer to my question. I'm asking if you think that the Nobel Foundation has discriminated against female scientists by not awarding prizes to female scientists who deserved it. If so, can you provide examples?

          • Rosalind Franklin.

          • There's a reason Ms. Franklin didn't share the Nobel Prize in Medicine that was awarded in 1962 to Watson, Crick and Wilkins: She died in 1958, and the Nobel Prize can only be awarded to living people.

  8. Not sure that CRCs are lower tier if you compare the quality of many of these chairs with those of the CERCs. Lower value, yes, but even then not by that much. Tier 1 Canada Research Chairs are worth $200 per year for 7 years, are renewable and often come with Canada Foundation for Innovation infrastructure funds (40% matched by the provinces).

    The human rights complaint was easier against the CRCs as these are meant to be more representative of the disciplines. Moreover, the CRC nomination dispersion is based on distribution of tricouncil funding and the CERC was clearly more targeted to specific fields.

    Still, this is $190 million of new research funding. This is good news. It represents less than 1% of federal support of research and anything is better than nothing.

    By the way, the only reason there were only 19 chairs awarded (instead of 20 for which there were funds allocated) is that the committee ran out of nominees prepared to sign on. There were 36 nominations some of which did not make the grade. There was a minimum number of chairs per each of the four categories but that was met. In other words, everyone who made the quality cut and was willing to accept the offer was captured.

    • (Small amendment to the above: Tier 1 CRCs are $200,000 per year, not $200.)

      • Thanks and to further clarify, tier 2 CRCs (junior chairs) are $100,000 per year over 5 years and renewable once. Many universities apply a single renewal to the tier 1 chairs as well but exceptions may be made (this is theoretical since the program has only been in place for a decade and the earliest a tier 1 second renewal could occur is in 2014. This latter wrinkle is worth watching as there is an equal number of tier 1 and tier 2 chairs (1000 of each). This year will see the first cohort of once renewed tier 2 chairs coming to an end. There are two options for these. They can be nominated for a tier 1 chair if its available or they can be dropped from the chair program (since the value of the tier 2 chair is half a tier 1, it is possible to "convert" two tier 2s into a tier 1 if the university agrees to shift its allocation composition. This will cause some grief among investigators. It's also worth remembering that the value of the chairs was set in 2000 dollars and is therefore around 70% of what it was. Hopefully, this will be remedied by either index-linking the value of the chairs or increasing the numbers.

  9. Just read the column in the print edition. Really interesting and exciting news. To have the resources to attract this type of talent is critical, and extends well beyond just the winners themselves, the trickle down effect of attracting further talent both externally and among undergrads through to grad students.

  10. There's a letter in todays G&M from Peter Dibble, a professor in chemistry from Lethbridge, that bemoans the investment in the CERCs at a time that NSERC funded researchers are struggling: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/may-

    This sort of entitlement argument will attract no sympathy from politicians or the public. What he doesn't mention is the success rate is still over 50%. Moreover, his math is appalling.

    "To put this latest investment into perspective, the annual Discovery Grants budget is just over $400-million and funds 10,000 scientists. Our government has just invested half that amount in 19 scientists."

    He conflates the 7 year value of the CERC program ($190 million) that will fund 19 scientists as half of the one year funding from NSERC ($400 million) that funds 10,000 scientists. In 2009, of 3200 applicants to the NSERC Discovery grants program, 2050 were funded (64% success rate). No wonder the government doesn't take researchers seriously!

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