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The campus of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, on Nov. 12, 2009. (Ian Jackson/Ian Jackson for The Globe and Mail)
The campus of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, on Nov. 12, 2009. (Ian Jackson/Ian Jackson for The Globe and Mail)

U of A reaps research windfall, despite austerity across campus Add to ...

It started last week, with Industry Minister Tony Clement flying in, making a joke about football, announcing $500,000 in funding for nanotechnology research, and promptly leaving.

A week later, a prestigious gathering of 50 delegates from leading Chinese and Canadian research institutions arrived, as well as an announcement Thursday of $200-million in federal research money.

It would be a busy two weeks for any school. But the delegates didn't attend McGill University, the University of Toronto or the University of British Columbia, typically regarded as Canada's top-ranked institutions.

Instead, they came to Edmonton's University of Alberta, which has quickly become one of Canada's powerhouse research centres. The U of A ranks second in total research funding, behind only U of T and up from fifth in 2006. This year, the U of A will spend $514-million on research, more than double its total from a decade ago.

"That's absolutely outstanding," said Gilles Patry, president and chief executive officer of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which will dole out the $200-million announced Thursday. "They've done extremely well."

The funding comes from $600-million in academic research money already announced under Canada's Economic Action Plan.

Research at the U of A is largely done in the fields of medicine, nanotechnology and energy - Thursday's announcement was made in a lab developing technology to assess underground oil sands deposits. Annual research funding rankings cited by the school are compiled by a Toronto-based consultant firm, The Impact Group.

The school has focused on research as a way to build its national and international profile, said U of A vice-provost Britta Baron. The funding comes at a time when the cash-strapped school is looking for cuts elsewhere - reports surfaced earlier this summer that it cut off phone lines for some professors this year to save money.

Instead, it's investing in research.

"From a societal point of view of course, research is increasingly conducted as applied research. It's meant to solve problems," she said. "The more selfish answer from the point of view of the individual university is your prestige, your ranking, depends mostly on the quality of your research. If you want to push yourself up, you need to invest in your research."

The U of A is home to four of the nation's 19 Canada Excellence Chairs announced three months ago, more than any other university. It's a figure Dr. Patry called "unbelievable" Thursday.

"It's great news for U of A. These are potential Nobel laureates that Canada is trying to attract, and has been successful in attracting," he said.

The $200-million fund will be distributed countrywide based on applications, Dr. Patry said. Those will start being accepted next year, and to fund capital and operational costs between 2012 and 2017.

It follows Mr. Clement's announcement of private funding for nanotechnology development, which also came from the EAP fund.

"It really does make Edmonton, and Alberta generally, a true centre of excellence …," Mr. Clement said, praising the city as "a magnet for talent."

With funding comes a need for talented researchers - of which China is the largest international source, Ms. Baron said. The U of A has 2,000 Chinese students and plays host to more Chinese Scholarship Council scholars (a prestigious national award) than any other Canadian institution, said Jin Li, vice-president for research and graduate education at Shanghai's Fudan University, who was among the delegates in Edmonton.

"It's a very rewarding trip. We've had an opportunity to talk to the leaderships of some of the best universities in Canada," Mr. Jin said, adding he knew little about the city beyond its university.

"The only information I had about Edmonton is that it's very cold," he said.

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