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Toronto U of T labs get $98-million upgrade from Ottawa, Queen’s Park

Jun Gu, a research technician handling phage display selection.Gu is working in the Sidhu lab, part of the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research at the University of Toronto on Dec 10 2014.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Canadian government and Queen's Park are pouring $98-million into hundreds of campus labs at the University of Toronto, the first step in the federal Liberals' pledge to modernize research facilities across Canada.

The federal government announced Thursday that it will contribute $83.7-million and the province will pledge $14.3-million. U of T will add another $91.8-million, totalling $189.8-million.

The Lab Innovation for Toronto (LIFT) project will upgrade 546 labs – 47 per cent of U of T's research space – in 16 buildings across the university's three campuses in Toronto, Scarborough, Ont., and Mississauga, Ont.

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The move is part of the $2-billion Post-Secondary Institutions Strategic Investment Fund unveiled in the Liberals' spring budget, meant to speed up infrastructure projects in Canadian universities and colleges.

The federal government will cover up to half the costs of construction, repair and maintenance of research facilities, with the rest coming from provinces, private donors and institutions themselves.

"We're working hard to restore science to its rightful place in government," Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan told reporters.

Ms. Duncan reiterated her government's pledge to end the "war on science," a long-standing snipe at the Harper government, which slashed research funding and barred scientists from sharing their work.

Navdeep Bains, federal Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister, who represents a Mississauga, Ont., riding, said the government plans to make similar announcements across the country. "We are focusing on innovation as a national priority," he said, citing the government's agenda to create jobs and drive industry growth.

About 1,100 researchers and 5,500 students in nine faculties, including medicine, dentistry and music, will benefit from the upgrades, which are already under way and will be complete by the spring of 2018, said U of T president Meric Gertler.

The revamped labs will promote collaboration between disciplines and help the university recruit top international candidates, Mr. Gertler said.

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The labs, on average, are 50 years old, with some dating back to the 1920s. The enhancements, which encompass 54,000 square feet of research space, will save the university $3-million in hydro bills and cut down 5,400 tons in greenhouse gases, said Scott Mabury, U of T's vice-president of university operations.

During a tour Thursday of an old, cramped lab in the U of T's medical sciences building, researchers pointed to corroded pipes, ceiling leaks and asbestos under the floor tiles.

An office in the lab was converted to a cell-culture facility because of limited floor space, creating "considerable concern" about biohazards, said James Scholey, a researcher who has worked in the lab for 26 years.

"We're all encapsulated in our individual cinder block laboratories, which was the design and style of the 1960s when the building was built," he said.

A renovated lab shown to reporters had noticeably better lighting and ventilation. The flooring was sealed, which prevents infectious agents from landing in cracks. New modular lab furniture allows the space to be reconfigured.

"The vision is to turn the building into this quality," said Tania Watts, a professor in the department of immunology.

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After touring the labs, Deb Matthews, Ontario's Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development, said the upgrades were clearly needed.

"We've got brilliant people doing very, very good research, but they have been shackled a bit by the state of their labs," she said. "My hat's off to them with making do with what has clearly been inadequate space."

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