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Researchers hail the Canada Foundation for Innovation, 20 years on

There is little argument that CFI has made Canada more of a player in international research.

By PATRICIA HLUCHY | OCT 12 2016

Until about six years ago, leading Canadian stress scientist Sonia Lupien felt hobbled by the limitations of her lab. Dr. Lupien and her team at the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at the Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal had to send off the samples that are intrinsic to their research to Germany to be analyzed. The group’s work often involves inducing stress in human subjects and then measuring the levels of stress hormones in their blood, saliva and, more recently, hair. “I remember a large study where we lost all the blood samples at the border – this was during the time of the mad cow disease,” recalled Dr. Lupien, who is also a professor of psychiatry at Université de Montréal. “We lost everything. It was a big pain in the butt, I must say.”

Then, in 2010, Dr. Lupien and her team received $81,000 from the Canada Foundation for Innovation to develop their own facilities to measure stress (the foundation had previously given the centre money to build stress-induction rooms). “It made us more competitive with the Germans, because some of the best scientists in the world are Germans,” she said. “Now we are self-sufficient. And we are doing this for other laboratories in Canada, so our colleagues don’t have to send samples away either. It has really improved my capacity to do research my way and as fast as I want…You know, we are as intelligent as anyone else in the world, we just need the means to do great research.”

Celebrating an anniversary

February 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the federal government’s announcement to create the foundation in the budget of 1997. As the foundation prepares to celebrate its anniversary, Dr. Lupien is among the many researchers and institutions hailing its success in elevating Canadian research excellence. The foundation provides money to universities, colleges and research hospitals for the creation of infrastructure – labs, buildings, machines, equipment – and, increasingly, for the operation and maintenance of that infrastructure. To date, CFI has funded about 9,400 projects, giving out a total of almost $6.7 billion.

CFI awards range from tens of thousands of dollars to tens of millions, and the projects it funds – through a rigorous merit-review process – include everything from research into music perception to studies of quantum information processing. Another CFI beneficiary, Nobel Prize laureate (for physics) Arthur McDonald, is director of SNOLAB, the world-renowned underground facility near Sudbury, Ontario, that conducts research into neutrino and dark matter physics. Dr. McDonald, a professor emeritus at Queen’s University, said crucial funding of $44.5 million from the foundation in 2002 enabled his facility to expand and remain at the forefront of this field of particle astrophysics, while subsequent CFI funding allowed his centre to continue “at the cutting edge.”

Rescuing Canadian science from the doldrums

Gilles Patry, former president of the University of Ottawa, has been president and CEO of CFI since 2010. He said the foundation was part of a federal government initiative in the late 1990s to rescue Canadian science from the doldrums and stem a serious brain drain. The federally funded, arm’s-length CFI was mandated to support world-class research, to attract top researchers to Canada, to train up-and-coming scientists in state-of-the-art facilities and to foster innovation.

There seems little argument among Canadian researchers that CFI, along with a handful of other agencies created around that time, has made Canada more of a player in the international research world. The foundation’s establishment, along with the advent of the Canada Research Chairs program, Genome Canada and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, was a successful attempt to “show that we’re serious about funding research in this country and can punch above our weight when it comes to innovation,” said Paul Dufour. An adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy, Dr. Dufour said CFI is the envy of other countries, some of which have looked into creating their own versions of it.

The foundation has had “a huge impact” at her institution, said Helen Burt, interim vice-president, research and international, at the University of British Columbia. “It’s one of the key programs that has driven a huge increase in what I’ll call research intensity at UBC,” she said. “We went from bringing in $137 million in external research funds to, in the last fiscal year, $600 million.”

Dr. Burt, who is also the the Angiotech Professor of Drug Delivery in the UBC faculty of pharmaceutical sciences, said she marvels at the “world-class facilities” built at UBC thanks in part to CFI and the leading researchers they attracted. “Clearly, you’re not going to attract the best in the world if you have second-rate infrastructure. “

Dr. Burt was herself a beneficiary of CFI funding in 2006 when she and colleagues received $8 million to establish the Centre for Drug Research and Development. The centre is dedicated to the pre-clinical development of potential drugs “to the point at which they can be spun out or developed by big pharma for clinical trials and further development,” she said.

CFI funds 40 percent of a project’s research infrastructure costs. Institutions are expected to secure the balance from the public, private and non-profit sectors. Provincial governments often kick in a matching 40 percent.

Heading into its third decade, Dr. Patry said there’s an awareness that more of the CFI’s funds need to be directed toward operational costs. He said 44 percent of the $1.33 billion allocated to the CFI in the 2015 federal budget – the largest amount it has ever received, he says – will go towards those costs. He predicted that, in five years, half of its investments will go to operation and maintenance.

“the future looks very bright”

Meanwhile, although funding to CFI and to the Tri-Council Agencies (the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) has increased over the past 10 years, Dr. Patry said it hasn’t kept pace with inflation and the increasing needs of the research community. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of full-time graduate students has doubled. What’s more, funding for CFI has been “spiky,” he said; it is unpredictable and varies from budget to budget. Universities Canada and other stakeholder groups have urged Ottawa, which launched an independent review of federal support for fundamental science in June, to provide sustained, predictable funding to the foundation. “I feel confident that, with the results that we have had in recent years, the impact that we have had on the research community, the future looks very bright,” said Dr. Patry.

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