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Michael Houghton, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology
Michael Houghton, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology

Globe editorial

With new brain gain, brash Canada is back Add to ...

Canada's attempt to Own the Podium in science involved a massive raid on the world's brainpower that, in its ambition, is reminiscent of this country's brash and ultimately successful attempt to "win" this year's Winter Olympics. It does not mean Canada is now a world leader in science and innovation - the private sector lags - but it shows that it is a place where world-class researchers want to be. The ultimate goal should be to nurture our own, homegrown research stars, enrich our tradition of science and innovation and raise productivity and living standards.

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Canada needed to bring some energy to its scientific scene to compete with President Barack Obama and the United States, and the 19 Canada Excellence Research Chairs announced this week by Industry Minister Tony Clement provide a boost. In luring Cambridge neuroscientist Adrian Owen and virologist Michael Houghton from a California biosciences company, Canada did the scientific equivalent of signing Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin as free agents.

The chairs, which have a budget of $10-million over seven years, are spread through 13 universities - four at the University of Alberta, two at the University of Toronto, one at the University of Prince Edward Island - and they involve a wide range of disciplines, from medicine (including neuroscience and diabetes) to climate change to information technologies. Last week, the government announced the latest batch of 174 Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships, from this country and several others, who receive $50,000 a year for up to three years. Big minds, big investments.

Some ask whether it is worth it. Are the gold medals - the Canada Gairdner Awards, the Nobel Prizes - important at a time that the colleges and universities face an explosion of growth? "The number one reason to fund research well and with vision is to attract the very best researchers from around the world," says Mike Lazardis, co-founder of Research in Motion, which gave the world the BlackBerry. "Once [in Canada] they can prepare Canada's next generation of graduates - masters, PhDs and postdoctorates, including the finest foreign students. All else flows from this."

Dreaming big is not enough; to build a first-rate scientific community in Canada requires support on a larger scale than this country has conceived of. The Olympics taught a similar lesson in sport. Anything less leaves the country relying on wishful thinking for its successes. A related lesson was that public-private partnerships can accomplish great things. This should be especially true in science, with its commercial possibilities.

Britain is not happy to lose four of its top scientists. Then again, it didn't like Own the Podium. Now it's decided to copy it. Attracting 19 top scientists to Canada is an exciting step, but this country will need to continue to raise its game to compete.

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