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Margin Notes

A plan to double the number of Canadians winning international awards


The Nobel Prize awards season has just ended and Canada was shut out – although a McGill University graduate, U.S.-born researcher John O’Keefe, was named a co-winner in the physiology and medicine category. There was some speculation that Canadian Stephen Scherer might win in that category, but it was not to be – this time, at least.

Behind the scenes, a small group of university and research leaders is trying to improve Canada’s international awards performance. University of Alberta President Indira Samarasekera made a passing reference to the initiative in a Globe and Mail opinion piece in early September, but other than that most Canadians are likely unaware of the effort.

As context, Dr. Samarasekera pointed out that it’s been 20 years since a scientist working in Canada has been awarded a Nobel Prize in science (Bertram Brockhouse received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1994, Michael Smith in chemistry in 1993, and John Polanyi in chemistry in 1986). With this in mind, the heads of Canada’s three main research funding agencies, as well as the Royal Society of Canada, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and other interested groups, have come together to ensure that, in their words, Canada’s “extraordinary research record” receives the international attention it deserves. This concerted effort is being spearheaded by Governor General David Johnston and Howard Alper, chair of the Science, Technology and Innovation Council.

Drs. Johnston and Alper, in an article in the Globe and Mail in February 2013, said the aim is “to nominate more of our leading scholars and scientists for major awards and prizes, while renewing our approach to sharing and celebrating their findings.” Their ambitious goal: to double the number of Canadian winners of international research awards by 2017.

In a recent interview, Dr. Alper explained to me how the initiative came about. The Governor General meets at least on an annual basis with STIC, and on his first meeting with the council a few years ago Dr. Johnston brought up the State of the Nation report published by STIC. The report noted that when it comes to the world’s most distinguished awards – the Nobel Prize, the Wolf Prize and the Fields Medal, for example – Canada is being outperformed not just by the research powerhouses of the U.S., the U.K., France and Germany, but also by our more comparable peer, Australia (in the period from 1941 to 2008, Canadians received 19 of the top international awards in science, compared to 42 for Australia).

This led to “a thorough discussion of the issue” and the suggestion that this was something that the Governor General could take on, said Dr. Alper. “It’s not political and it can add enormous value to pride and morale in the country. That was essentially the message.” The committee was thus formed, with the Governor General as chair, under the name of the Enhancing Global Recognition for Canadian Research Excellence initiative.

The committee has developed an inventory of international research awards and how each prize committee works. For Nobel Prizes, for example, there are no “open” nominations – only those contacted by the Nobel committee can make nominations.* For some prizes, only former winners can nominate candidates. However, most other international awards/prizes are open to nominations from any source.

The committee also offers to support partner organizations in building “compelling dossiers” on candidates by providing external reviews of draft nominations to “position them for maximum success,” said Dr. Alper. The secretariat “will take a look at them, critique them, beef them up and then think about how to network them through the various international forums.”

The group has another component: a separate committee whose basic role is to act as talent scout to identify individuals who should be considered by the different stakeholders to nominate for prizes and awards. This canvassing committee is chaired by Dr. Alper. As part of this, Dr. Alper has been visiting university campuses to meet with executive heads to promote the initiative. “Without the university presidents taking leadership, making it a priority, this won’t happen. They are pivotal in enhancing our success, and the success of their institution and their researchers.”

The initiative started slowly, but is now ramping up. Noting that this will be a multi-year campaign, Dr. Alper said: “You don’t go from being a star postdoc to being a Nobel Prize winner, but there is a path. This is about being really intentional over a long period of time to put Canadian candidates in places where they will be recognized for their phenomenal achievement.” The first noteworthy successes, he said, came earlier this year when Nahum Sonenberg at McGill received the Wolf Prize in medicine, and a month ago with Ian Hacking at the University of Toronto taking the Balzan Prize in philosophy.

There was one other notable Canadian achievement but, alas, the committee couldn’t take credit for it. It is a great story and one that Dr. Alper clearly enjoys telling.

At the committee’s first meeting, the group discussed where to start and “we decided to start at the top with the Nobel Prize, and immediately Alice Munro’s name came up,” said Dr. Alper, who was asked by the committee to contact Ms. Munro to inquire whether anybody had nominated her. “So, I called her. I’d never met her, so I said, ‘I’m sure you want to know why I’m calling. Let me spend five minutes to explain.’ I explained our mission and objective, and she said, ‘Nope, I have not been nominated for the Nobel Prize to my knowledge, and in fact I have never been nominated for any international award except the Man Booker Prize, which I got.’” They talked for 45 minutes, said Dr. Alper. “It was a great conversation.”

Dr. Alper told Ms. Munro he was going to put together a small task force that included the president of Western University, where she had been a writer-in-residence, the dean of arts, and a professor of English literature who is a champion of her writing. “She said, ‘oh, you must add my publisher!’ and I did, and he was excited to take part. So we worked together and we were making great progress.” This was in 2013, with the committee intending to submit the nomination by the January 2014 deadline for this year’s prizes.

But then, in October 2013, lo and behold, the announcement came out that Ms. Munro had won the Nobel Prize for literature. “I wrote the group and said, ‘we’ve been made redundant,’” said Dr. Alper, adding, “I’d love to take the credit, but it wasn’t us.” Dr. Alper has since learned who nominated her, but he was told this in confidence.

His final reflection on the matter: “The unexpected can happen. But you can’t count on the unexpected.”

*This is corrected from an earlier version, which had an error.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Stephen Downes / October 15, 2014 at 18:05

    It’s not just promotion for international awards, but promotion for Canadian science and research generally. There aren’t the national awards programs and national funding bodies in Canada that we see in other nations. People working in, say, the U.S. have a wide range of support leading to an international prize, from the NSF to NEA to Gates Foundation to the Pulitizers, to name only four of dozens and dozens. We are especially lacking in private sector and foundation recognition and support, but also weak in government and institutional recognition and support. It is possible – nay, common – to be world-leading and yet totally unknown in Canada.

  2. Karen / October 27, 2014 at 13:12

    Stephen, I agree with you. For me the biggest barrier to success is now the granting system we have in place. With only 15-20% success rates, we faculty spend most of our time writing grants. When we do get grants, we now spend most of our time filling in paperwork in order to satisfy all the “accountability” measures in place.
    Doing _actual_ work is low on the list of things that have to be done in a day. It’s an enormous waste of talent to force top faculty to be constantly chasing every shrinking, ever more competitive funding amounts.

  3. Donald Forsdyke / October 29, 2014 at 08:02

    Alice Munro’s message reminds one of the old saying – you take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves. The important thing is not to get Nobel prizes, but to do great work. Given great work, the Nobel prizes and their like may or may not follow. I suspect the marketing mind-set that so dominates the Governor-General’s committee may be at the root of our problems. It diverts from the real issues, such as that alluded to by Karen – the tragic waste of the talent of our most gifted people in writing grant applications. The solution is not more money, but attention to the proposals for reform of the peer-review system that have been available for decades.

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