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Adrian Owen, (left) Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging and BrainsCAN Co-Scientific Director, prepares a patient for scanning in a high-field (3T) functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) system at Western University's world-class Centre for Functional and Metabolic Mapping.

Western University photo

Thirteen large-scale initiatives led by universities across Canada are the winners in a high-stakes federal competition aimed at helping the country's top scientists make a mark in the global research arena.

The projects will split a total of $900-million in federal funding to build on Canada's existing strengths, and advance knowledge in fields as diverse as data science and sustainable food production.

Spread over seven years, the money represents the second and, by far, the largest boost for university-based science to come out of the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF), a program that was launched by the former Conservative government in late 2014 and has since been carried forward under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals. An earlier round of awards, totalling $350-million, was announced in 2015, just ahead of the federal election call.

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The objective of the cash injection "is to help our strongest research institutions reach a world-leading level of excellence in areas that matter to Canada," said Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan, who announced the results of the competition at an event at Ontario's University of Waterloo on Tuesday.

Waterloo's growing quantum technology community is among the beneficiaries of the federal money, with a $76-million award that will allow researchers to develop ideas for devices that operate on quantum principles – from the drawing board into the hands of early adopters who can put them to practical use.

"What we're doing is giving ourselves a chance to explore and find those applications," said David Cory, deputy director of Waterloo's Institute for Quantum Computing.

The kinds of devices that Dr. Cory said he envisions he and his colleagues developing over the coming years range from a prototype quantum computer to sensors that could revolutionize medical diagnostics by making it possible, for example, to easily distinguish between cancer cells and fat cells in human tissue.

The initiative will also dovetail with industry players in the region, including Quantum Valley Investments, co-founded by former BlackBerry pioneer Mike Lazaridis, as it seeks to generate a pipeline that can move quantum technologies developed in Waterloo into the marketplace.

When CFREF was created, it was billed as a way to play to Canada's strengths by vaulting research groups and centres that are already doing good work into the world's top tier. But proposals also had to fit with a handful of strategic areas that the government pre-selected, including environment and agriculture, health and life sciences, natural resources and energy, information and communications technologies, and advanced manufacturing.

Critics warned the competition would lead to a concentration of limited federal resources at a few big universities at the expense of researchers at smaller institutions.

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Yet the list of winners, selected through a process of merit review, are more widely distributed than might have been expected – including a $49-million project led by Laurentian University in Sudbury to discern subtle differences in metal and non-metal bearing sections of the Earth's crust.

"It wasn't simply the largest institutions that received all of the funding," said Brent Herbert-Copley, executive vice-president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, which administers CFREF on behalf of the federal government. "It shows that there is excellence throughout the Canadian research landscape."

Several of the winning proposals involve collaborations between institutions that take a multidisciplinary approach to a major research challenge. This is true of the largest single award, amounting to $93.7-million, for a joint effort by three schools in the Maritimes – Dalhousie University, Memorial University and the University of Prince Edward Island – to conduct an integrated study of Canada's Atlantic waters with an emphasis on sustainability and marine safety.

"By combining our research, we can tackle more complex questions than we can individually," said Julie Laroche, a Dalhousie researcher who specializes in marine microbiology.

Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, which lobbied hard for CFREF when it was first conceived, said the fund has enabled a different scale of research than can be achieved through grants to individual scientists or through the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which relies on a partnership model to support research infrastructure.

"We wanted to put an accent on some of those areas of research that are the most promising, the fastest moving and that have the most implications for Canada and the world," Mr. Davidson said.

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It remains to be seen if CFREF will continue in its current form after the seven years of funding has expired. Ms. Duncan said that "it would have been unfair" to stop the competition in mid-stream after the new government was sworn in and many universities had already invested significant time and resources into their proposals.

"We're taking a look at it," she added, noting that earlier this year the federal government launched a review panel to assess the effectiveness of Canada's research funding process. Led by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, the panel is expected to report its findings to the science minister by the end of the year.

The winning initiatives are:

1. Safe and Sustainable Development of the Ocean Frontier

Amount: $93,732,000

Lead Institution: Dalhousie University

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Focus: Integrated ocean analysis of the Northwest Atlantic with emphasis on climate impacts, food supply and shipping safety.

2. Data Serving Canadians: Deep Learning and Optimization for the Knowledge Revolution

Amount: $93,562,000

Lead Institution: University of Montreal

Focus: Combining powerful computational tools, including deep learning, with massive data sets to extract useful information across a range of applications.

3. Healthy Brains for Healthy Lives

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Amount: $84,000,000

Lead Institution: McGill University

Focus: Bringing computational and mathematical tools to bear on questions relating to brain function and neurodegenerative disorders to improve diagnosis and to accelerate the development of effective treatments.

4. World Water Futures: Solutions to Water Threats in an Era of Global Change

Amount: $77,840,000

Lead Institution: University of Saskatchewan

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Focus: Developing new methods and tools for monitoring water quality and managing water needs, particularly in the north.

5. Food from Thought: Agricultural Systems for a Healthy Planet

Amount: $76,613,000

Lead Institution: University of Guelph

Focus: Increasing capacity, sustainability and safety of global food production without compromising the environment or livestock health and welfare.

6. Transformative Quantum Technologies

Amount: $ 76,277,000

Lead Institution: University of Waterloo

Focus: Developing new quantum devices for a range of applications including computation, materials characterization, navigation and sensing.

7. Future Energy Systems Research Institute

Amount: $75,000,000

Lead Institution: University of Alberta

Focus: Develop new and sustainable approaches to producing, transporting and using energy.

8. Global Research Initiative in Sustainable Low Carbon Unconventional Resources

Amount: $75,000,000

Lead Institution: University of Calgary

Focus: Developing technologies to reduce the carbon footprint of unconventional fuel sources including heavy oil, bitumen and tight oil and gas.

9. BrainsCAN: Brain health for life

Amount: $66,000,000

Lead Institution: Western University

Focus: Understanding higher brain function and its role in thinking, learning, movement and communication to better maintain healthy cognitive performance throughout life.

10. Canadian Particle Astrophysics Research Centre

Amount: $63,744,000

Lead Institution: Queen's University

Focus: Build on efforts that began with the Nobel prize-winning Sudbury Neutrino Observatory experiment to use particles arriving from deep space to study fundamental questions about matter and the universe.

11. Metal Earth

Amount: $49,269,000

Lead Institution: Laurentian University

Focus: Gaining an improved understanding of the process that governs the distribution of metal resources in Earth's crust at continental scales.

12. Montreal TransMed Tech Institute

Amount: $35,625,000

Lead Institution: Polytechnique Montréal

Focus: Developing advanced medical technologies for diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation.

13. Vision: Science to Applications (VISTA)

Amount: $33,338,000

Lead Institution: York University

Focus: Using an interdisciplinary approach to visual neuroscience and computer vision to develop new technologies for assisted living, surveillance, image-guided surgery, filmmaking and a host of other applications.

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