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Choosing the right nominee for a prestigious research chair can be a high-stakes gamble

Canada Excellence Research Chairs add to a university's reputation, but choosing the right person can be difficult.

By MARK CARDWELL | MAR 12 2014
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Illustration by Denis Carrier.

Winter came early to much of Canada this year, but weeks of bitter cold, snow and freezing rain haven’t chilled Luda Diatchenko’s enthusiasm for life in Montreal. “I’m from Moscow,” says the world-class expert on the genetics of pain, who moved from North Carolina in September to take up her duties as holder of McGill University’s first Canada Excellence Research Chair, or CERC. “The winter is nothing new for me. And I love hockey, so this is great.”

A candidate’s willingness to live in a country with severe winters was just one of the myriad factors to consider for the eight universities that were awarded 11 CERCs in the second round of the so-called “super chair” program in November 2012. As the deadline approached for those eight universities to nominate prospective candidates, the pressure mounted to identify world-class researchers who would come and stay for the duration of the lucrative seven-year, federally funded positions.

Under the CERC program, approved nominees have a year to take up their positions. If they fail to do so, or leave before the end of their tenure, federal funding for the non-transferable, non-renewable chair is withdrawn.

Universities that were awarded a CERC had until the end of February to nominate a candidate, although nothing prevented a university from nominating a candidate before the deadline. The nominations were forwarded to a review panel for assessment and approval – a process that usually takes about two months, says a CERC spokesperson. At the time University Affairs went to press, only Dr. Diatchenko had been assessed, approved and appointed.

“It’s a very intense process,” says Yves De Koninck, a biochemist with the department of psychiatry and neuroscience at Université Laval. He and his brother, fellow Laval biochemist Paul De Koninck, spearheaded the university’s successful effort to land a CERC in 2012 in neurophotonics, a field that harnesses the power of photonics to better understand disorders and diseases of the brain. It is the third CERC for the university, which received two in the first round in 2010.

Laval’s CERC proposal was one of 46 submitted by 27 universities in this latest round. Yves De Koninck likens his university’s successful bid in this highly competitive process as akin to winning a bid to host the Olympics. But, he says, the euphoria quickly waned once the daunting task began of recruiting a nominee from among the three dozen people they solicited directly and the two dozen others who were recommended to them by experts in their field.

“It’s tough because you want to find someone senior who has established themselves so that the [assessment and review] panel will give the green light, but young enough so that their best or good work is still ahead of them,” notes Dr. De Koninck.

Practical considerations

He adds that after shortlisting several potential candidates based on their demonstrated research abilities at the leading edge of neurobiology, the members of Laval’s recruitment panel then weighed “practical considerations” like timing and availability. “Eligible people are at different stages in their careers,” explains Dr. De Koninck. “Some are involved in major projects or are working in places where they want to stay for a few more years. But this is a now-or-never opportunity.”

Then come “softer” issues like a potential candidate’s ability to speak or learn French (considered a must for a place like Quebec City) or to live in a cold-weather country like Canada. “The number one question we keep asking ourselves about every potential candidate is, ‘Will this person come here and stay?’” says Dr. De Koninck. “We can’t force them to do either, and if they don’t come or stay, we have no recourse. This is a one-shot deal, so you have to make sure you make the right bet.”

To be sure, the stakes are high for universities that decide to throw their hat in the CERC ring. Created in 2008 as part of the federal Conservative government’s effort to strengthen Canada’s research advantage by attracting the world’s best researchers in four fields – environmental sciences, natural resources and energy, health and related life sciences, and information and communications technologies – the program provides selected universities with up to $10 million over seven years for each CERC hosted at their institution. The university also usually matches federal funding and attracts millions more from industry partners.

The CERC program “supports our commitment to ensuring Canada’s future economic growth by investing in innovation and research capacity in priority areas,” said then-Industry Minister Tony Clement in May 2010 at a welcoming ceremony at the University of Toronto for Harvard biologist Frederick Roth and German neurobiologist Oliver Ernst, two of the 19 CERCs awarded in the first round.

The minister failed to mention, however, that one of the approved nominees – a European pain researcher who had been courted to fill a CERC awarded to McGill in the first round – had informed the university that he would not be coming. That’s why there were 19 CERCs announced at the time, instead of an even 20. “The selected candidate was awarded a chair, but his institution in Europe was determined to retain him and outbid the CERC program,” says Fernando Cervero, director of McGill University’s Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain.

Then the CERC program suffered another setback, this time more publicly. The University of Alberta was considered the big winner in the first round, having landed four of the $10-million chairs. However, one of the four chair holders, world-renowned diabetes researcher Patrick Rorsman, forfeited his position after only seven months on the job and returned to Oxford University. In addition to immigration issues for some of his research staff and family complications, Dr. Rorsman blamed Alberta’s weather for his decision to leave.

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“[Edmonton] is quite a nice place and the university is also ambitious, but they suffer from the climate,” Dr. Rorsman told the National Post in November 2012. “A lot of the people I would be interested in recruiting from other places would hesitate to move to Edmonton,” he said. “So basically you are left with people who are local and maybe from surrounding areas, which is not bad but it’s good to have some influx of talent from other places as well.”

Though disappointed by the British researcher’s departure, a U of A spokesperson notes that the three other CERCs named in 2010 are still in place and are making “excellent progress.” For her part, the executive director of the CERC program downplays both the impact and import of Dr. Rorsman’s decision to leave. “We do an extremely robust peer-review exercise and evaluate nominees to ensure they are at the very highest level in their field, but if someone doesn’t respect their commitment to come and stay there’s nothing we can do,” says Michèle Boutin. “And when you are dealing with so many people over a seven-year period, you can’t expect to keep everyone happy.”

A good fit

For the universities that have been awarded CERCs, concern about whether or not nominees will come and stay is lessened by the extensive legwork that was put into the application process. “Getting your federal ‘hunting license’ to go looking for a star researcher depends on two prior steps: building consensus that this is an area where we have strength, and distilling your arguments when making the presentation to the CERC panel,” says Wade MacLauchlan, past president of the University of Prince Edward Island. For Dr. MacLauchlan, who was deeply involved with UPEI’s successful bid to get a CERC in aquatic epidemiology in 2010, “making a logical case for a CERC helps to create an organic path to how you identify your candidate.” That path led to Ian Gardner of the University of California Davis, a world-class expert in the health of fish stocks, who is now working at UPEI’s internationally renowned Atlantic Veterinary College.

Dr. Gardner, he adds, was part of an “intimate group” of animal and fish epidemiologists who knew each other through symposiums and summer research projects and group meetings. “Scientifically, we were looking for someone in terms of supporting a cluster of skill sets and disciplines (and) how their research fits in with what we’re doing,” recalls Dr. MacLauchlan. “Then you get into leadership and personal skills. With Ian, we had some insights into his person and where he was in his career, and we felt he was a good fit.”

As for Dr. Gardner’s willingness to move to tiny, remote Prince Edward Island, Dr. MacLaughlan responds: “People in that kind of work don’t expect to be living in a big city. Their colleagues and team members tend to live in coastal areas.”

McGill’s Dr. Cervero says finding a candidate who would be happy to live in Montreal was front and centre in the minds of selection committee members who eventually settled on Dr. Diatchenko. “For the second CERC process, we concentrated on selecting a candidate that, as well as meeting all expectations of quality and excellence, was also likely to move to McGill University, thus avoiding the final pitfall of the first CERC process,” he says.

In addition to being a world-class expert in human pain genetics, Dr. Diatchenko “had an established research collaboration with members of the pain research community at McGill, and appreciated and respected the quality of the research at McGill and was keen to come,” says Dr. Cervero. “We therefore managed to identify a superb candidate that was perfectly suited to enhance an already strong research program.”

For her part, Dr. Diatchenko, who moved to the U.S. from Russia in 1994 and spent seven years at a private lab in Palo Alto, California, before taking an academic position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the move to McGill is a match made in heaven. “For me it was not a difficult decision to come here, in fact the timing was perfect in both my professional and personal lives,” she says.

“Montreal is a lovely, vibrant, elegant and beautiful city. And I love the fact that I am now working at one of the top pain research centres in the world. I know that I can leave anytime. But I don’t want to – and I hope they don’t ask me to.”

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  1. Jim Clark / March 12, 2014 at 8:58 pm

    The CERC might be good for the prestige of the universities, whatever prestige means in that context, but it is not good for unfunded researchers, including those at or graduating from the same institutions, nor for the markedly unfunded post-docs, again including those graduating from the prestigious institutions and taking jobs at lesser institutions. And it is probably not good overall for Canadian science, which historically did very well (by empirical criteria like publications and citations, as opposed to prestige) because of more egalitarian funding practices in the past.

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