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Education Universities, government negotiating over research funds

Minister of State for Science and Technology Greg Rickford visits the University of British Columbia.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The federal government's promise of $1.5-billion in new research funding in last week's budget is a major coup for Canada's universities, but the sensitive work to decide how they will share it is still to come.

Over 10 years, the Canada First Research Excellence Fund will disburse as much as $200-million annually, starting with $50-million in 2015, making it one of the costliest new budget pledges. It is designed to invest in key fields of strength to attract talent, buy equipment and build international networks.

It is also the fruit of extensive lobbying led by the country's largest universities, which argued Canada needs to target areas of research where it can excel globally to stay competitive. But it is still uncertain how the government will divide the new funds among universities and colleges, aside from an oft-repeated promise that the process will be "open, competitive and peer-reviewed."

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Universities are urging that the payouts should mirror each school's ability to win other research grants, making success with agencies such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council a proxy for splitting the new funds. But on Wednesday, the minister in charge cast doubt on that idea as he promoted the Research Excellence Fund in Toronto, saying he expects "separate" decisions on who wins new funding.

"We're not speculating on that and we're not making those kinds of clear commitments," said Greg Rickford, Minister of State for Science and Technology, later adding that the distribution of funds "actually can't occur … through the traditional ways of the tri-council agencies."

About 70 per cent of all research dollars awarded by the three federal agencies currently go to Canada's 15 most research-intensive universities, including nearly 40 per cent to the top five schools, though the balance shifts each year. University leaders are pressing finance officials to make the new fund recognize existing strengths.

"It's intended to do big things, and not just be spread around evenly," said Suzanne Corbeil, executive director of the U15 group of Canadian research universities.

The government will negotiate the fund's finer details with universities, and it is too early to say what will result, said University of Waterloo president Feridun Hamdullahpur, who hopes to win funds to hire new, prominent professors in fields such as nanotechnology. He warned "if we start spreading this all over the place, we're going to miss that focused approach [on excellence]."

Further details are coming "later this year," said a spokesperson for Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, but for now they are up for debate.

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