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Margin Notes

Universities say ‘thank you’ for innovation support

Event held in Ottawa to celebrate the Canada Excellence Research Chairs.


In an upcoming opinion piece which will appear in the April issue of our print magazine (and online in early March), David Mitchell, president of the Public Policy Forum, makes the point that universities need to show their appreciation for the remarkable gains that have been made in federal research funding over the past 10+ years, and the impact that these funding initiatives are having on Canada. “In my opinion, this kind of demonstration has not been a strength of most Canadian universities,” he writes.

Mr. Mitchell, who previously served as vice-president, external relations, with three different Canadian universities, wrote those words well before the event that was held in Ottawa this past Tuesday, Feb. 8, to celebrate the new Canada Excellence Research Chairs program. The aim of that gathering, organized by the University of Alberta, was precisely to say thank you to the government for the new program and to demonstrate the remarkable impact it is already having.

“Let me express our gratitude … for the series of visionary investments” that the government has made in research and innovation, said University of Alberta President Indira Samarasekera, one of at least a half-dozen university presidents in attendance.

The federal government created the CERC program in 2008 to establish up to 20 prestigious research chairs in universities across Canada, and the first group of 19 chair holders was announced last May. Each CERC holder receives $10 million over seven years to pursue his research program, with additional funds often coming from the institutions and elsewhere. The recipients are now in the process of setting up their research programs and, in some instances, have brought some of their research teams with them (all but one of the CERC holders come from outside Canada; the other is an expatriate Canadian returning to the country from France).

Fourteen of the 19 researchers who received a CERC attended the event on Tuesday to speak about their research and why they decided to come to Canada. The CERC holders had praise both for the program and for the dynamic research environment they have found here.

Adrian Owen, holder of the CERC in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging at the University of Western Ontario, said he has found in Canada a “tremendous breadth of expertise” in the multidisciplinary field in which he works and says he has already been approached by experts from across the country interested in collaborating. Dr. Owen, who moved here from the University of Cambridge in the U.K., also lauded the generous funding and flexibility of the CERC program “to pursue innovative, creative and risky research,” adding, “most of us have never had a seven-year grant before.”

The message appeared to be heard loud and clear, and be well received, by the government. Four ministers, including Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Industry Minister Tony Clement, attended the event. Both indicated their government would continue to support innovation and sustain the momentum.

Incidentally, Mr. Mitchell of the Public Policy Forum also took part in the event, moderating a panel of six CERC holders. Returning to his original theme above, he said in his opening remarks: “We don’t do this often enough … We should take the time to celebrate our successes more in Canada.”

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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