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Dr. Isla Myers-Smith of the University of British Columbia examines tundra plants at her field site in Yukon.Handout

When ecologist Isla Myers-Smith was working on Herschel Island–Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park off the north coast of Yukon this summer, the temperature one week hovered at 25 degrees – weirdly hot enough to go swimming in the Arctic Ocean and have it feel like a weekend at an Ontario cottage.

As she and other researchers lounged on the beach, they heard a sploosh and looked up to see a large section of melting cliffside slide into the ocean about 200 metres away, followed by another and then another.

“Over the next two weeks, hundreds of landslides formed across the landscape,” Dr. Myers-Smith said.

The episode illustrates the breakneck pace at which climate change is transforming the Arctic. With limited resources, Canadian scientists are hard-pressed to keep up.

Now, Dr. Myers-Smith can draw on an $8-million award to expand her studies as a newly minted Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in global change ecology. She is one of 34 scholars who will collectively receive $248-million from the federal government to build or maintain world-leading research across a diverse range of specialties.

The high-profile CERC program, originally launched by the Harper government in 2008 to reverse Canada’s brain drain and attract top academics from around the world, is now in its fourth cycle of hires.

The latest cohort of “superchairs” were unveiled during an announcement on Thursday at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., where three of them will be based. The remainder are taking up positions at 17 other institutions across the country.

As in previous cycles, several are coming to Canada from the United States or Europe with the goal of building world-recognized research hubs with colleagues and students.

“These are leaders in their field, at the top of their game,” said Ted Hewitt, president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, which administers the excellence research chairs across all disciplines. “They can build their teams and they can really start to build a program in a way they maybe couldn’t do where they were at, by having the freedom to get off the research funding treadmill.”

For Dr. Myers-Smith, becoming a chairholder has allowed her to move from her former position at the University of Edinburgh to the University of British Columbia, where she will build on her work that focuses on changes to plant ecology on the tundra as well as the consequences for other species and for Northern communities.

She is among the chairs who were born and educated in Canada but who left for opportunities abroad and have now returned.

Another is former Yale University psychologist Dana Small, who is known for her work on the neurobiology of obesity. Dr. Small has now moved her research program to McGill University in Montreal where she holds a new excellence research chair dedicated to studies of metabolism and the brain.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Dr. Small said she relished the opportunity to shift from a U.S.-based health research system that she said has become more focused on developing new drugs than on basic science. She said that she found out she had been offered an excellence research chair at McGill while she was in Munich on the verge of accepting an offer to direct a research institute there, and she decided on the spot to return to Canada instead.

“It was a gut feeling,” said Dr. Small who is originally from Victoria. When the call came, “I knew I was going to McGill.”

Other chairholders are entirely new to Canada.

Niko Hildebrandt, a world expert in developing biosensors for medical diagnostics, has worked at universities in Germany, France and South Korea. He said he had to look up McMaster University in Hamilton when he was considering the prospect of becoming an excellence research chair there. He and his family have since relocated to Canada.

Dr. Hildebrandt said he felt well supported by McMaster during its bid to win a chair and was impressed by its cross-disciplinary track record. His work reaches into the domain of quantum physics to detect molecules over extremely short distances. The method can be used to detect biomarkers of disease. And while the technology is exciting, he said, what he values more is providing information that is relevant to doctors and patients.

“I think a great thing is working with different people from different communities on different topics to see what they actually want and what you can bring,” he said.

For chairholders, one potential downside of the program is that it is non-renewable, so replacement funding must be found elsewhere when the term expires.

That has caused some to leave Canada when the money runs out. But many have stayed, including Adrian Owen, a high-profile neuroscientist who left Cambridge University to take up a chair at Western University in London, Ont., in 2011.

“Downscaling to do the research without the CERC funding was challenging for sure, but we had worked with the then-senior leadership at Western to maximize sustainability,” said Dr. Owen

He added that he felt the research program he and others had created in London had been a “complete success” and “not something I felt I wanted to leave.”

A 2020 internal evaluation of the CERC program found that it should be continued in order to help Canada remain competitive in the global competition for research talent. The latest iteration of the program features a more streamlined process intended to prevent prospective chairs from abandoning an offer. And the diversity of chairholders has been broadened in response to criticisms earlier in the program’s history.

One criticism that has been more persistent is the view that the program is an expensive luxury in a federal funding system where grants and fellowships have been frozen for years and where lab budgets are increasingly ravaged by inflation.

John Smol, a biologist at Queen’s University who has been outspoken on the need for more funding for early-career scientists and graduate students, said that while the CERC program has often produced worthy research, it would do better as the capstone on a well-supported research community that is not eroding from the bottom.

“We keep saying we are a knowledge-based economy,” Dr. Smol said. “I sometimes wonder, where is this knowledge going to come from?”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article included an incorrect title for Ted Hewitt. He is president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. This version has been updated.

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