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The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) will fund up to 19 research fellowships and 20 graduate scholarships through Ontario universities with a $30-million gift from former BlackBerry executive Jim Balsillie and a matching amount from the Ontario government.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A private think tank founded by former BlackBerry executive Jim Balsillie is launching a retooled $60-million program for research in international law, hoping to push the reset button after controversy scuttled a previous partnership with York University.

The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) will fund up to 19 research fellowships and 20 graduate scholarships through Ontario universities with a $30-million gift from Mr. Balsillie and a matching amount from the Ontario government. The funds are committed for 10 years, supporting research into laws around economics and finance, intellectual property and the environment.

Instead of basing the program at a single university, the International Law Research Program will now be housed at CIGI and open to academics from any Ontario university. A previous bid to set up research chairs and scholarships in a joint program with York fell apart last year after months of wrangling. Some 300 faculty members signed an open letter arguing the agreement would give CIGI "unprecedented" control over academic matters, such as choosing shortlisted candidates and research plans. Earlier negotiations with the University of Ottawa had also stalled.

The new structure distances CIGI from such concerns by removing it entirely from university hiring and governance. And the revamped setup is preferable because, "by signing up with a single law school, you were actually limiting the program," said Rohinton Medhora, CIGI's president, who joined the think tank in May of 2012, a month after the York partnership was abandoned. But he also acknowledged that "we could not afford to go through another process which would get kind of demagogued and turn into a mess the way the York one had become."

"We may think we were right in all of this, but there were other people who strongly disagreed, and we didn't need yet another battle," he said.

Instead, he hopes to return the focus to the program's original intent. "Canada [is] playing in this global field. And the global field is run by two things: Certainly technology, but second, rules, regulations and laws. And so if you want to operate in the global environment, you have to know how to navigate all of these," Dr. Medhora said.

The search for a director for the program and the first fellows is under way. CIGI expects to name five to 10 scholars in the next two years, and all 19 within three years. The fellowships will vary in duration, from about three months up to three years, and are designed to have some fellows taking sabbaticals so they can be based at the think tank's Waterloo, Ont. headquarters.

Public servants and lawyers looking to take a leave to do research can also apply, as can academics outside of law, from fields such as environmental studies, international relations or business.

"When you try innovate, to do something different, when you're charting your own path, you will find resistance and risk aversion everywhere," Mr. Balsillie said in an e-mail. "But that's the only way you can change the world and I think this program will exceed even our own expectations."

Decisions about research will still be under CIGI's control, steered by an advisory committee to be made up of nine experts in the relevant fields. The difference from the in-house model that failed at York is that under the new program, CIGI will only be supporting a professor's research project, and not their appointment to the university.

"As with any research grant, there will be an understanding of what's expected, on which basis payments will be made," Dr. Medhora said. "So we're not interfering with the work of a university, we're not impinging on university freedom."

The province also announced $6-million for mathematical science research through the Fields Institute and $1.2-million for educational initiatives through the Toronto Financial Services Alliance on Friday, which Training, Colleges and Universities Minister Brad Duguid said will support "the education and training opportunities we need to succeed in a highly skilled global economy." And Dr. Medhora is hoping CIGI's program will also make Canada more competitive.

"We're strong, but we could be stronger," he said. "I mean, the situation is not hopeless, but if we want to stay on our game and actually lead the field rather than simply keep up with it, then we do have to up our game."