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How Canada poached academic stars from around the globe Add to ...

For Ottawa, it was one of the biggest bets on scientific research in a generation. But for the man at the centre of Canada's worldwide drive to recruit top scientists, it was a "ballsy" play that at times resembled a bidding war for NHL free agents.

Derek Burney said in some cases foreign universities and employers counter-bid furiously to keep star researchers during the just-completed global talent scout for Canada Excellence Research Chairs. The effort cost Ottawa $190-million in grants and netted 19 renowned scientists who are moving to Canada.

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"It [was]almost like a hockey negotiation where you are trying to entice a player from another team. And the other team wants to hang on to them, and so they offer more money," said Mr. Burney, who heads the selection board of the Canada Excellence Research Chair program set up by the Harper government.

During a global recession when deficit pressures would appear to demand restraint on all fronts, Canada instead travelled the world with a chequebook - looking to bulk up on the scientific innovation it hopes will strengthen economic foundations here at home.

"If you read the British press you will see they are screaming bloody murder that we're taking the best from Britain and bringing them to Canada. Well, precisely. That was the name of the game," said Mr. Burney, a former Canadian ambassador to the U.S. who also once served as chief of staff to prime minister Brian Mulroney.

The federal cash - $10-million over seven years to each university that recruited a sought-after scientist - functioned as seed money to generate even more research capital for each of the new chair positions being created across the country.

The Canadian universities that attracted 19 foreign researchers ended up raising an average of $17-million in extra funding per chair from provinces and the private sector, Mr. Burney said. That's an average of $27-million each for each of the participating 13 campuses across Canada.

"All this additional funding means it's going to be two to three times bigger than the original concept," Mr. Burney said.

Critics of the initiative say it will further strain a system that is coping with scare resources.

The multimillion-dollar investment comes at a time when most universities are cutting programs and staff to make ends meet, increasing class sizes and in some cases such as at the University of Alberta, asking faculty to take unpaid leaves, says Jim Turk, executive director of Canadian Association of University Teachers.

"Boutique programs," like the new research chairs illustrate the lack of co-ordination in the government's approach to higher education, Mr. Turk argues.

"This is a piece-meal approach to a complex issue," he said. "We are bringing in stars at the same time that courses are being discontinued and labs are being shut."

Mr. Turk draws a different lesson from the world of sport. "It's not the team that can hire the biggest stars that wins over the long run," he said. "It's the teams that develop the best farm system and develop talent.

But Mr. Burney is unapologetic about the star-recruitment system.

"We were told we were trying to recruit Nobel laureate-stature people to Canada because good people attract good people. That's axiomatic. That was the objective," Mr. Burney said.

"We weren't told, 'You have to do a calculus in your head of what the financial benefit to the country is going to be long term'," he said.

"This was really to create clusters of excellence within our universities in the areas which were considered to be most important to Canada."

The research topics funded by the program include work on the Arctic, the oceans and the oil sands as well as diseases that figure prominently in provincial health budgets.

The new research program was introduced in the 2008 budget along with the Vanier Scholarships for graduate students, part of a package developed in talks with university presidents to help them attract international talent.

Supporters of the Excellence Chair initiative point out that its benefits will spread far beyond the 19 individuals selected.  Each researcher, they say, will bring teams of people and attract additional research dollars. It sends a signal that Canada is serious about rewarding talent and effort, they say.

"These individuals are coming because there is a critical mass of global excellence in these areas in these universities," said University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera, who helped convince Ottawa of the merits of such a program.

Mr. Burney said the $190-million in federal grants will reap benefits for Canada.

"We hope some of these people will stay. Some of them may not but what they will do in the five to seven years they are here is going to be worth the investment."

Follow us on Twitter: @stevenchase, @lizchurchto

 

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