Brussels, Sep 2002
Canada has similar targets to many Western European countries. Targets to reach in terms of percentages of GDP dedicated to research and development, climbing OECD league tables and the like. But five years ago it did something quite extraordinary that has had a major impact on both the country's research infrastructure on a macro scale and the possibilities for research for individuals.
The CFI (Canadian foundation for innovation) is a fund which has made a difference to the nature of funding research in Canada. Set up with the specific goal of making Canada one of the top five most research intensive countries in the world by 2010, it opened a huge new funding opportunity for the Canadian research community.
'I could not begin to describe the importance of the CFI,' says Donald Brooks, Associate Vice President of research at the University of British Columbia. 'The science infrastructure gets good money from the CFI. It is the only [scheme] that invites applications that are not linear. On a personal note, my own research environment completely changed due to a grant from the CFI in the first round of calls.'
Set up in 1997, the CFI was a recognition by the federal government that Canada's research infrastructure needed to be updated in order to be internationally competitive. The CFI will have distributed a total of C$3.15bn (2bn euro) by the end of its mandate in 2010. As it offers 40 per cent of funding to projects, which must find the other 60 per cent themselves, this means that CFI's initiative will have led to an additional C$10bn (6.14bn euro) in research funding by 2010. Some 2,000 projects have benefited so far.
But the money does not come easy. Working on a criteria that analyses the quality of research and the need for infrastructure, the strengthening of capacity for innovation and the benefits for Canada, the CFI sifts through the many projects applying for funds in each of its quarterly allocations. Experts from different disciplines and different countries form a college of reviewers.
The effect on research has been wide ranging. It has increased networking, as each institution applying for funds can see what the others are doing and get together on common projects, thereby increasing chances of being selected. It has increased the multidisciplinary approach to research in Canada. In addition, institutions have generally found the remaining 60 per cent of the project costs from the provincial governments (40 per cent) and private sector or other means (20 per cent). Again, this has meant that researchers have had to make alliances which will help them not only in the CFI application, but in others afterwards.
'The culture in the universities has changed,' according to Carmen Charette, Senior Vice President at CFI, because they have had to give details of what they can contribute to the agenda.' The status of Canadian researchers has changed with the new financing too. 'Canadians were often seen as freeloaders, so it was difficult for them to lead research projects,' says Ms Charette.
The CFI funds have led to Canada going from having just one entry in the top global research equipment league to having 11. This has gone beyond just addressing deficiencies. For example, Canada was the only G7 country not to have a synchtron. Now it has one, and in June 2002 announced funding for a further nine major infrastructure projects, including a research icebreaker and a programme to strengthen Canada's leadership in deep ocean research. This, along with payment of fees for Canadian researchers to access many other leading edge research programmes, makes a big difference to the options for the country's researchers.
'This kind of thing helps to attract international partners and there are less complaints from researchers,' Ms Charette said. What's more, the funds are spread across all disciplines. One of the difficulties at the beginning was getting the message out that social sciences, for example, could equally qualify for them. 'But we said to them - think about what can be useful from you to the innovation process and suddenly more people started coming forward [...] Now we get proposals from all areas of research, from social sciences to research,' says Ms Charette. The University of British Columbia's museum of anthropology, for example, has been a recent beneficiary.
Following the injection of funds from the CFI, Canadian researchers can now think about what research they would like to do and request funding that helps that to happen, rather than having to adapt their research to the existing infrastructure.