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Professors Jennifer Hoffman, left, and Sarah Burke examine the individual atoms of quantum materials at UBC’s Quantum Matter Institute in Vancouver on Wednesday. (Jeff Vinnick for The Globe and Mail)
Professors Jennifer Hoffman, left, and Sarah Burke examine the individual atoms of quantum materials at UBC’s Quantum Matter Institute in Vancouver on Wednesday. (Jeff Vinnick for The Globe and Mail)

Driving innovation: Federal research fund picks first recipients Add to ...

A Vancouver-based centre known for its study of advanced materials and a research program in Quebec that could help shepherd such materials into next-generation computers and electronic devices are together set to receive a $100-million boost from the federal government.

The two grants, expected to be announced on Thursday, are among the first projects to receive support from the Canada First Excellence Research Fund (CFREF), a $1.5-billion federal initiative aimed at accelerating high-performing research groups and programs at Canadian colleges and universities.

“This is going to be a major change in the way we operate,” said Andrea Damascelli, director of the Quantum Matter Institute at the University of British Columbia, which is slated to receive the larger of the two grants. He added that the funding would help the institute grow by some 40 members and allow it recruit scientific and technical staff at a high level. The related grant will go to the University of Sherbrooke, where researchers have a track record of working with industry in pursuit of materials that could eventually revolutionize the computer industry among other sectors.

“It’s really to go from quantum science to quantum technology,” said Alexandre Blais, a professor of physics who will lead the winning project at Sherbrooke.

The awards are intended to help researchers capitalize on the properties of matter at extremely small scales, where the often counterintuitive rules of quantum physics reign supreme and can be harnessed, potentially, to develop powerful computers, miniature sensors and medical devices, high performance batteries and other ground-breaking technologies. Both groups are already well known internationally for their work with so-called quantum materials and high-temperature superconductors.

“This is really looking at the the future,” said UBC president Arvind Gupta, who added that the results of the inaugural CFREF competition suggest “the government is very serious about creating some world-class research in Canadian universities.”

Out of 36 applicants, a total of five projects were selected by review committees to receive CFREF funding this week. In addition to the quantum materials groups, the winners identified so far included a $114-million program in regenerative medicine at the University of Toronto and a $37.2-million initiative related to global food security at the University of Saskatchewan. A fifth project related to Arctic science is expected to be announced on Friday.

The quick-turn-around competition, which began last December, is seen as a dry run for a much larger second round for CFREF that will distribute close to $1-billion. The second round will proceed at a more deliberate pace and will be conducted in stages, with letters of intent to submit proposals due this fall from which a smaller set of full proposals will be selected to proceed to the next level.

The process of competing for the fund has been a sometimes-steep learning curve for Canadian universities more accustomed to its researchers winning individual grants for specific experiments that are reviewed in detail by the government’s granting councils.

With CFREF, said Vivek Goel, vice-president of research at the University of Toronto, the massively larger scale of the projects under consideration changes the way the research proposals are written.

“The reviewers are going to be looking at what the big questions are that we’re going to be addressing, the quality of the team we have assembled to address them and whether the institution has the capacity and expertise to govern this level of funding.”

While CFREF concentrates federal research dollars in a few locations, the University of Sherbrooke award suggests that the fund is not exclusive to Canada’s largest universities as some had feared. In the first round, however, there is a clear trend toward rewarding success with success. Many winners have drawn on federal resources through the Canada Foundation for Innovation and each hosts at least one of the $10-million Canada Excellence Research Chairs previously established by the Harper government.

While in Toronto on Tuesday, Ed Holder, Minister of State for Science and Technology, referred to the recent Pan American Games in describing CFREF as a way to enable the researchers that it supports to achieve top ranking in their respective fields, much like the Own the Podium initiative for Canadian Olympic athletes.

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