Big dose of Can-do

November 11, 2005

Canada's universities are topping global tables and money is flowing in. Over the next few pages, Stephen Strauss takes a look at some of their cutting-edge projects

The astronomers and space scientists gathered at the annual meeting of the Canadian Astronomical Society last May could claim to be "number one".

Canada led the world in the number of times that its space science papers had been cited by others in their work. But there was good news for all Canadian science in other citation statistics released at the same time. The country, which has the world's ninth-largest economy, was sixth for the number of research papers published (370,692 in all fields) and sixth in the number of times they were cited (3,8,379).

In November 2004, the journal The Scientist reported 1,456 scientists'

responses to a short survey about the best places in the world to do research. When the institutions were divided into a world and a US division, Canadian schools were in the top ten in almost every world category, with the University of Toronto and the University of Alberta generally coming first or second.

Along with the satisfaction surveys and citations analyses that pronounce this a splendid time for scientific research in Canada, there is also the amount of money that has been pouring in. Last year it was estimated that the federal Government has invested between C$13 billion and C$15 billion (£6.2 billion-£7.2 billion) in research since the late 1990s.

On top of this, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, a federal government programme established in 1997 to co-fund major infrastructure upgrades in medical science and academic institutions across the country,estimates that by 2010 it will have distributed more than C$11 billion.

Among other things, the CFI money has contributed to the national Big Science projects. The most notable example is the C$174 million Canadian Light Source Synchrotron, a new-generation high-intensity light source located in the scientific hub of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

The effect that this money can have on previously economically starved areas of research can be beyond striking. The Government has just announced a C$150 million commitment to Arctic research during the International Polar Year in 2007-08. This should reverse the effects of a decades-long brain drain. Wayne Pollard, associate professor of physical geography at McGill University, says: "Over 20 years, I would estimate that half the Arctic scientists in the country may have left or stopped doing research."

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research, established in 2000 to broaden the mandate of medical research, has seen its pot of money increase from C$5 million in 2000 to C$778 million in 2005-06. The number of operating grants that the CIHR has awarded has risen from about 2,400 to more than 3,100, and the value of the grants has increased from about C$70,000 to more than C$100,000.

The extra money has also been used to establish the Canada Research Chairs, to add or to keep 2,000 top-level researchers in Canada. The chairs include university salaries and long-term research grants of between C$100,000 and C$200,000 a year. CRC has been given nearly C$1 billion by the federal Government to date and it announced in April that of the 1,446 research positions it had filled, 442 were taken by academics recruited from other countries.

Provinces have also upped their support of institutions, particularly in matching infrastructure funds. For example, in 2004 Ontario announced that it was contributing C$300 million in matching funds over a four-year period to top up a CFI grant, which generally pays only 40 per cent of equipment and building costs. McGill reported in 2004 that matching funds from the Quebec Government and others had turned C$140 million of CFI grants into C$345 million for research in 20 facilities.

There are also heavy-duty efforts by a number of provinces to bring biomedical research and industrial application together. For example, in response to the success of initiatives in Montreal and Vancouver - not to mention Prince Edward Island - Toronto recently opened a C$450 million MaRS research and development biotechnology centre close to the University of Toronto and its numerous research hospitals.

Canadian scientists, spread across a vast country, are increasingly being linked by what has almost become a Canadian research landmark - centres of excellence. These were conceived by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in 1982 as virtual institutions hooking together geographically separate researchers who, while working on the same general topics, were often isolated in their own disciplines. Since then, the idea has grown.

The federally funded National Centres of Excellence, overseen by three research granting councils, support 20 broad domains of excellence. These range from stem cells and forest management to photonics and innovation and the automobile. The CIHR has 13 virtual institutes in medicine, and individual provinces have also taken to linking together researchers working at their institutions together. The result of all these changes is a palpable delight in doing research that extends across the country.

"All these efforts have reinvigorated the Canadian research environment - it is exciting to be here now," says Ted Sargent, holder of a Nortel Networks Canada Research Chair in emerging technologies. "But what comes with giving resources to Canadian scientists to really make an impact are responsibilities and high expectations. I find it is incredibly stimulating to be told that the bar has been raised and that expectations are extremely high."

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