On Campus

But what about the classroom?

Canada poaches scientists from around the world, critics worry about lack of funds for teaching

After poaching 19 top researchers from around the world, Canada’s university sector couldn’t be more thrilled, but not everyone is happy with the money spent on the newly implemented Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) program.

The 19 chairs, distributed across 13 universities, all come from outside Canada, prompting fears of a brain drain from other countries. More than half of the CERC recipients will hail from the United States (9) and Britain (4), while the balance will be made up of researchers from Germany, Brazil and France.

Industry minister Tony Clement, whose government first announced the program in 2008, touted the initiative as proof of Canada’s scientific prowess. “The CERC program confirms Canada’s standing as a global centre of excellence in research and higher learning,” he said Monday. Each CERC appointment is worth $10 million over seven years, but with help from provincial governments and private donors that number has risen to an average of $27 million. The funding will be used to support research teams, as well as the researchers themselves.

The CERC program aims to bring in top talent in the technical fields of environmental sciences and technologies, natural resources and energy, health and related life sciences and technologies, and information and communications technologies.

Since the program was announced two-years ago, Canadian schools scrambled to have their research proposals accepted, which was followed by a nomination of potential chair holders. The final appointments were made by a selection board. Many of the universities that succeeded will come as little surprise, with the University of Alberta getting four chairs, and the University of Toronto two. There were upsets, as McGill University failed to get a chair, and a few surprises, epitomized by the awarding of an excellence chair to the University of Prince Edward Island.

Convincing foreign scientists to come to Canada has been met with several sports analogies. “It [was] almost like a hockey negotiation where you are trying to entice a player from another team. And the other team wants to hang on to them, and so they offer more money,” Derek Burney, head of the selection board, told the Globe and Mail.

In its praise of the Conservative government, Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, called the program “smart and strategic: smart because research is vital to Canada’s prosperity and we’re in a very competitive environment in terms of attracting and retaining world-class researchers. It’s strategic because it is focused on the four priority areas of Canada’s science and technology strategy.”

But not everyone believes the money is being well spent. The long awaited announcement of the chair holders comes at an awkward time for Canada’s universities. Many institutions are slashing budgets, including the University of Alberta which recently implemented an early retirement package, as well as furlough days. A report from the Toronto Dominion Bank, released Monday, warned of pressures on educational quality due to factors such as increased class sizes.

The contrast between money spent in the classroom and these new research chairs was not lost on Don Drummond, an economist and one of the authors of the report. “I’d still like to get my daughter into a smaller classroom,” he told the Globe. James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, also told the paper that he is similarly skeptical of the program, “We are bringing in stars at the same time that courses are being discontinued and labs are being shut.”

Others are critical that none of those awarded a research chair are women. Of the 40 shortlisted candidates provided by universities, all were male. Wendy Robbins who teaches English at the University of New Brunswick, told the Winnipeg Free Press’s Mia Rabson that she partially blames the lack of women on the program’s focus on technical fields where women tend to be underrepresented. Robbins says this is a mistake. “Unless you can patent it they’re not interested. But we need society and government to recognize not all our problems can be solved by science and engineering,” she said.

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