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François-Philippe Champagne, federal Minister for Innovation, Science and Industry, and Andreas Anthinietis, a professor of building engineering at Concordia University in Montreal, visit the university’s solar simulator, which can accurately mimic full sunlight.Graham Hughes/Handout

The federal government has announced how it will spend nearly $1.4-billion in support of high-profile research initiatives across Canada.

A total of 11 university-led projects have been selected for funding through the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, a program that is intended to help a limited number of university-based research projects achieve world-leading status.

“Our goal should be to be at the forefront of discoveries for the 21st-century economy,” said François-Philippe Champagne, federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, during an event to unveil the latest round of funded projects held at Montreal’s Concordia University on Friday.

Established in 2015, the seven-year non-renewable research fund is a highly competitive vehicle for Canadian scientists to take their research efforts well beyond what a single lab or team can accomplish.

The current round marks the third and largest for the fund to date. It is also the most diverse, including initiatives in technology, medicine and social sciences. And, for the first time, it is amplifying role of Indigenous partnerships in research.

A number of successful projects feature artificial intelligence as a central theme, including the largest award – nearly $200-million – to a University of Toronto-based effort that will use AI-powered chemistry labs to develop new materials for a wide range of applications in heath and technology.

“This investment allows us to lead the way in transforming how Canadian universities do innovation,” said Leah Cowen, the university’s vice-president of research.

Another big winner was McGill University, which received $165-million for an initiative to develop RNA-based medicines, a research area whose importance is now well known because of the success of mRNA vaccines for COVID-19.

Dalhousie University will lead a $154-million effort aimed at illuminating the poorly-understood connections between the world’s oceans and the global climate.

Anya Waite chief executive of the Dalhousie’s Ocean Frontier Institute, said the project will also support research into climate adaptation for coastal communities.

“All our international partners are sitting up and taking notice of Canada’s investment,” Dr. Waite said, adding that the federal grant “puts possibilities in front of us that really haven’t been there at this scale before.”

Ted Hewitt, president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, which oversaw the competition, said that the projects that earned funding in this round were notable for the way they cut across traditional research disciplines.

“We’re seeing a kind of confluence of science and engineering, health and social science, and humanities-related objectives,” he said.

One example is an initiative based at the University of Calgary that will receive $125-million to improve child and maternal health.

Susa Benseler, the principal investigator on the project, said the proposal was motivated by Canada’s 30th-place ranking for child well-being on the 2020 UNICEF report card.

In addition to biomedical studies, the project will dive into the social determinants of health, with a focus on Indigenous communities, to more directly address how to improve outcomes for babies and mothers.

“This is not a blood test kind of question,” she said.

Another project, led by Anna Triandafyllidou at Toronto Metropolitan University, will explore how parallel trends in immigration, technology and civic involvement are transforming the country. The aim is to help build a more equitable and inclusive society.

“We’re taking the bigger picture,” she said. “It’s not just sociologists or political scientists and economists, but also electrical engineers, transport experts, health experts, city builders. It’s really a 360-degree coalition of research.”

Other universities with projects that are receiving funding of about $100-million apiece include Memorial University in Newfoundland (clean Arctic shipping), the University of Ottawa (heart-brain connection), the University of Montreal (responsible AI), Concordia University (decarbonized communities), York University (neural and machine systems) and the University of Victoria (community energy transformation).

While the announcement is welcome news for Canadian research universities, the funding was allocated well before this year, and the genesis of the program dates back to the final year of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. In contrast, Ottawa has been strongly criticized by research advocates after the latest federal budget failed to address a growing funding crisis for graduate students and early-career scientists.

“We’re delighted these funds are getting out the door, but it doesn’t detract from the need for urgent reinvestment,” said Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada.

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