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New CFI President seeks $750 million in funding

Gilles Patry talks of challenges, priorities and new programs.


On a recent visit to the University of British Columbia, Gilles Patry, president of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, was impressed by the visual impact of the grants CFI had awarded the institution. He couldn’t get over the number of cranes dotting the campus. For Dr. Patry, who became president of CFI last August, the cranes symbolize the effect he believes the federally funded foundation has had on campuses across the country. “The transformative impact of CFI is visible everywhere,” he says.

The opportunity to continue that transformation was the reason he wanted to head CFI, said Dr. Patry in an interview with University Affairs. It’s a transformation that he personally experienced at the University of Ottawa as its president from 2001 to 2008. U of O grew to become a top-tier university from a medium-tier institution, he argues, largely because of the CFI infrastructure investments that allowed it to attract top researchers and high-calibre students. He points to similar growth at smaller and mid-sized institutions across the country, citing the University of Prince Edward Island, which recently competed for, and won, a much-coveted Canada Excellence Research Chair. “All of that,” he says, “I don’t think would have been possible had CFI not been here.”

Under its funding formula, CFI provides an average 40 percent of infrastructure money. Institutions must leverage the remainder from their provincial government and other sources. That means that the close to $400 million UBC has received from CFI since the foundation began in 1997 has multiplied exponentially, as it has at other institutions.

That funding formula, and the outcome measurement studies that CFI conducts to assess the benefits of the projects, are legacies that have raised the bar for government funding of public institutions, Dr. Patry believes. He credits one of CFI’s former presidents, David Strangway, for the innovations that recently won the foundation plaudits from KPMG and an international panel of experts, after a value-for-money audit.

Having admired those hallmarks, he doesn’t plan to change them. He sees his mission as assessing and marrying the needs of the federal government, the provinces and the institutions. His challenge will be to persuade the “people on the other side of the street” from his downtown Ottawa office – the members of parliament – to loosen the purse strings a little more. Now, CFI’s emphasis has shifted slightly, to acknowledge the need for operational support as well as infrastructure funding. It’s a direction that Dr. Patry believes must continue.

In October, the foundation launched its first competition for operating funds. The Major Science Initiatives program provides $185 million over five years to cover 40 percent of the operating costs, for up to five years, of big science facilities that CFI had already funded. Among those eligible for the competition are the Canadian Light Source in Saskatoon, the Neutrino Observatory in Sudbury, the high-performance computing facilities at Compute Canada, and the NEPTUNE and VENUS ocean observatories overseen by Oceans Networks Canada in Victoria.

That program is part of $750 million allocated to CFI in the 2009 federal budget. Of that, $600 million was for new competitions, including $155 million for the CFI’s flagship Leading Edge and New Initiatives funds; $182 million to a Leaders Opportunity Fund, and $32.5 million to a College Fund. (Although research isn’t a core mandate for community colleges, the College Fund is supporting programs that involve working with industry to bring products and ideas to market.)

The facilities funded under the Major Science Initiatives programs are not the only ones that need operating assistance, says Dr. Patry. Although university presidents commit to having money to operate facilities when they apply for CFI infrastructure grants, in practice “that’s not always the case,” he says, particularly in the economic downturn. The federal government also needs to look at other major scientific programs, including the Canadian Space Agency, he adds.

That’s why he’s asking the federal government for $750 million in the 2011 budget, to be spent over five years, beginning in 2013. Of the total “ask,” $150 million would go to the CFI’s existing Infrastructure Operating Fund.

Dr. Patry points to Finland and South Korea as examples of nations that offset declining business R & D investments with public investments in education and research institutions: today, their economies are both resilient and innovative. He believes Canada should adopt the same strategy, and he emphasizes the need to foster international partnerships to help do so.

“In terms of the economic crisis, research and innovation is the solution,” Dr. Patry says. That has always been the CFI mantra – and the new president is not planning to tinker with success.

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