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Education A case for the Jim Flaherty excellence in research fund

A meeting with Jim Flaherty was always something I faced with anticipation and a little dread. Over the last eight years, I was fortunate to meet with former minister Flaherty quite often, sometimes alone and sometimes with other university presidents, always to discuss how Canada's universities could work with the federal government to better Canada's economic and social prospects. The anticipation was due to the inevitable delight of talking with a very smart and committed man who leavened any conversation with wit and a sparkling laugh. The dread was in knowing that for any suggestion I might make, the response would be many pointed and difficult questions. Jim Flaherty was no pushover.

What I soon learned, however, was that the questioning was always coming from a basic instinct to try to find the most effective ways to make Canada's universities better, and through them to strengthen Canada's pool of talent and its capacity for discovery and innovation. Jim Flaherty believed first and foremost in excellence. He thought Canadians could take their place among the best in the world, and he saw no reason to expect anything less. He wanted our universities to lead that charge.

Of course, Mr. Flaherty's contributions to Canada's recovery after the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression are well known and will be the subject of deserved praise. His hand was steady on the tiller, and his choices proved to be wise indeed.

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What has been less remarked upon is Jim Flaherty's role as a champion for excellence in higher education and research. Looking back on each of his budgets, you find an investment in new generations, and in research and innovation: the Vanier Scholarships for the very best graduate students from Canada and abroad; the Banting post-doctoral fellowships for the most promising young research leaders; the Canada Excellence Research Chairs to bring the most exciting senior researchers to Canada from across the globe; investments in Canada's research granting councils and in research facilities like TRIUMF, Canada's national laboratory for nuclear physics on UBC's campus.

I hope Budget 2014 will be remembered now as a striking legacy budget for Jim Flaherty. It included a generational investment in research and innovation: the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF).

Committing to a $1.5-billion investment over 10 years, the Fund will ensure that Canada attracts and retains globally influential scientists and social innovators. It will help Canada's universities build robust international partnerships to address the toughest challenges facing our world. It will encourage connections between our universities and business, government and civil society. I know that Jim Flaherty believed deeply in these goals because he helped to identify them and to share them with his colleagues in government. If it were up to me, I would rename CFREF the "Jim Flaherty Excellence Fund." It would not have happened without him. Canadians have reason to be grateful. And I will miss those conversations and that laugh.

Stephen J. Toope is President and vice-chancellor of the University of British Columbia.

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