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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Top grades for Canada's new research program Add to ...

Stephen Harper's government deserves an "A" for the conception, execution and delivery of the program that lured 19 renowned scientists to Canada from overseas.

The Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) holders are coming for up to seven years from the United States, Britain, France and elsewhere, a welcome reversal of the dribble of top researchers and professors who leave Canada for opportunities elsewhere.

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So good is this program that the federal government should repeat the exercise in a few years, widening the criteria to include humanities and social sciences and insisting that the winners teach some undergraduates.

The CERC budget looks eye-popping - $190-million - and it produced the usual lamentations from those who purport to speak for university teachers. What about us, they cried, who need more money, and whose labs are closing?

A little perspective, please. The $190-million is stretched over seven years, and therefore will cost Ottawa a little more than $25-million a year. That investment has already sparked millions more from private sources and provincial governments.

The federal spending, therefore, is a drop in the bucket of total research monies dispensed by Ottawa. For that investment, the country gets 19 people of demonstrated excellence to work with graduate students and companies.

The CERC winners' excellence had to be demonstrated through a rigorous review process, involving academic peers, the heads of Canada's research-granting councils and a selection committee chaired by former ambassador Derek Burney and former University of Toronto president Robert Prichard. Thirty Canadian and international experts scrutinized the applications along the way.

So the selection process seemed as pure as possible, with the exclusive emphasis on excellence. Universities large and small turned up winners, from the University of Sherbrooke and University of Price Edward Island to the University of Alberta, the biggest winner with four of the 19 winners. That haul that will help U of A inch toward its ambitious but proper goal (as long as the Alberta government supports it) of becoming a top-20 public university in North America by 2020.

In the United States, a program like this might not be necessary, because private universities are so well endowed, and so much private and foundation money is available to recruit the world's best. And success feeds on success, so the top U.S. universities are automatic magnets for talent.

Canadian governments, therefore, have to lean into the wind and provide public money in the competition for academic excellence. That's why Jean Chrétien's government created the original Canada Research Chairs program, onto which the Harper government has now grafted the CERC program.

Both of these programs allowed Ottawa to help the cause of higher education, where universities get their funding and direction from provincial governments. Research knows no political or jurisdictional boundaries, so the federal government has a long-established, recently enhanced and critical role to play.

It's not a criticism of the CERC program to observe, however, that this new effort, and the avidity with which universities pursued the CERC money, illustrate how research rather than teaching drives university priorities. The people who are being the most short-changed at universities are undergraduates, since teaching has been downgraded as a tool to professional career advancement in too many places, and administrators have been afraid to push their faculty into spending more time in the classroom.

In addition, provincial base-budget monies have not often kept pace with increasing enrolment, because the politics of high education are all-around access to institutions rather than the quality of the academic experience once the student arrives. Provincial budgets are being eaten alive by health care, and budgets for higher education invariably suffer. University presidents are frightened of framing the issue this way, however, knowing they will lose in the court of public opinion.

The CERC program, with its lofty but limited ambition, was not designed to address any of these endemic problems. Instead, it set out to improve the country's scientific research capabilities by adding excellence from overseas. The process was well-conceived, the public policy purposes important and the results, well, excellent.

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