Game changer—big bucks, big brains - Macleans.ca

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

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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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