Big payoffs possible from new foundation

DANIEL McCABE | The deadline to apply for funding from the federal government's new Canadian Foundation for Innovation is fast approaching and the payoff, says Vice-Principal (Research) Pierre Bélanger, could be huge.

"The way I estimate it, we could be looking at $100 million for McGill over five years."

The creation of the foundation was announced in February by finance minister Paul Martin during his budget speech to the House of Commons. Said Martin, "The research facilities in our hospitals, our universities and our colleges are part of the root system of our economic prospects for the future. But today, these facilities are far from what they should be. There has been too little investment. Much of our current research infrastructure is literally unable to handle the kind of pressures required to keep Canada in the front ranks of the new economy."

To address that problem, the CFI has been given $800 million to parcel out to the country's universities, colleges and hospitals to upgrade labs, establish or modernize computer networks, purchase new technologies and scientific equipment, and support new research data bases.

Since researchers have been sounding the alarm for years about crumbling infrastructure, this would seem to be good news, right? However, there are two fairly significant strings attached.

The first is that the CFI will only supply up to 50% of the money for projects, and in most cases, will provide 40% of the funds required. The rest will have to be found elsewhere. The expectation is that provincial governments will supply another 40% of the funding, leaving universities and hospitals responsible for coming up with the final 20%.

The other limitation is that applications for funding have to be tied to research in health, science, engineering or the environment. Researchers from the social sciences and humanities are mostly shut out of the CFI process. "There are exceptions," says Bélanger. "An economist studying the health care system or a sociologist looking at the implementation of technologies in the workplace might be able to get support through CFI."

Still, that's little solace to researchers in faculties such as arts, education, law and religious studies. "I think it's deplorable that the social sciences and humanities have been excluded in this way," says Bélanger.

CFI projects will be chosen through a peer review process. Selection criteria will include the quality of the research and its likely contribution to Canada's economic growth and quality of life. The reviewers will also consider its potential for attracting talented young researchers to an institution and for training new researchers.

Bélanger wants professors interested in applying for CFI money to get busy now. He is asking that letters of intent be sent to the Faculty of Graduate Studies by November 25.

Bélanger chairs a committee which will examine the letters of intent, with an eye towards putting together proposals that stand the best chance of winning CFI support. The letters of intent don't have to be too detailed  at this point, the committee simply needs to get a sense of who is interested, what they would use the money for, and how much money they'll need.

"As we look at the letters, if we see any duplication, we can point it out and advise the researchers to get together." McGill will also likely send in joint proposals with other Montreal universities "for the really big stuff," says Bélanger.

The vice-principal wants to appoint a McGill professor to be the University's CFI coordinator. "We'll make sure that person is released from teaching responsibilities." The coordinator will spearhead McGill's CFI applications and seek out new proposals.

Although Quebec City has yet to make any official pronouncements, Bélanger says the provincial government is sending out encouraging signals about its willingness to participate in the CFI process.

Even if McGill does exceedingly well in its applications for CFI support, the work won't end there, cautions Bélanger. "The scramble will be to find that last 20% of funding."

He says that industry isn't likely to be of much assistance. "Industry isn't very interested in research infrastructure. They tend to look for projects where the benefits for them are more direct"  training programs for scientists they might hire one day or research with marketable possibilities. 

Bélanger expects to work closely with Vice-Principal (Development and Alumni Relations) Derek Drummond. Bélanger notes that a $1 million donation towards research infrastructure could result in McGill receiving an additional $4 million from the CFI and the province. "A four-to-one leverage on a gift might be very attractive to a donor," he reasons.

"We'll use some of our internal funding too," adds Bélanger. "We could put out $30,000 of our own money and see the value of that quintupled." McGill might also be able to squeeze "extra large discounts out of the suppliers we buy equipment from" and use that towards the 20% target.

The vice-principal is anxious that the CFI will take into consideration the money McGill has spent in recent years on upgrading its research infrastructure. "Will we be noted for the steps we've already taken to make improvements or will the Johnny-come-latelies get all the money and forge ahead of us?"