Unsure where to fit this on the all-important Starbucks-to-Tims spectrum

I return from New Orleans, about which more later, to discover that there has been almost no coverage of the Prime Minister’s recent foray into the realm of the hyper-intellectual. (UPDATE: The Ottawa Citizen’s national editor will be cranky for weeks unless I point to Joanne Laucius’ typically elegant roundup.) I refer, of course, to recent announcements about the Canada Excellence Research Chairs and the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships. These new initiatives by the Harper government are designed to add another layer of possibility to Canada’s universities — a top echelon, certainly not large in number, of global-class researchers and graduate scholars.

Neither program fits the narrative the Globe has begun to pursue, with real energy, which is that plucky researchers are standing up to face this Neanderthal government, which Doesn’t Get Science. To say the least, there’s something to that narrative. But neither is it that simple. Drift, listlessness, boneheadedness in some areas is matched by real thoughtfulness in others. Here are last week’s developments.

The Excellence Research Chairs, or CERC, provide for up to $1.4 million a year for seven years to fund (a) a lead investigator and (b) a specific research project, for up to 20 such researcher/projects across the country. The goal is to get the best researchers in the world, frankly without particular regard to whether they’re Canadian. Some will be, most won’t. This has caused some grumbling among Canadian university teachers. University administrators I’ve spoken to, not surprisingly, are less eager to grumble. Last week the first-tier competition winners were announced. They’ll now be winnowed down to a final pool of grant recipients. The projects being proposed are formidable: McGill wants to do research into pain, Alzheimer’s, and a new-generation Internet; Western has somebody in mind for a green energy project; Calgary wants to “quickly” implement carbon capture and storage.

The Vanier Scholarships are designed, frankly, to resemble the Rhodes Scholarships: a mix of foreign and Canadian top-tier young scholars, pursuing specific programs of research at Canadian universities. This year’s crop of 166 scholars will, again, not fundamentally change the nature of Canada’s campuses, where tens of thousands of students are pursuing their educations. But the program ensures that the very best from abroad will give Canada a look, while Canada’s best can excel at home. (This year’s crop contains far more Canadian than foreign students. Frankly I hope that’ll change over time.)

Some of the recipients’ programs of study would make James Lunney blush: Canadian Nathaniel Sharp will study mutation rates in fruit flies at UofT, while New Zealander Richard Fitzjohn has another evolution-related course of research planned at UBC. Other Vanier Scholars don’t seem entirely motivated by PMO talking points. James Nugent’s research proposal for the UofT department of geography is entitled “Changing the Climate: Neoliberalism, Global Warming and Canadian Labour-Environmental Alliance Building.” Oralia Gomez Ramirez wants to study the organization of Mexico City sex workers at UBC (well, she wants to do the studying at UBC. The sex workers aren’t organizing at UBC. Well, maybe they are, but… oh, you get it). And onward: Inuit participation in climate-change activism, “a case study of gay-straight alliances in Ontario schools,” “an empirical investigation of sexual reoffending” — it’s so refreshing to see this government associated with anything empirical when it comes to crime — early diagnosis of breast cancer, the history of female Protestant missionaries in 19th-century China and Japan, habitat selection of woodland caribou (that’ll be Tal Adgar, from Israel, studying at Guelph), the politics of marriage in Turkey. Recipients get $50,000 a year for up to three years of study.

Again: these are new initiatives by the Harper government. They are not uncontroversial. They benefit small groups of winners, and if you don’t like that sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you won’t like. But I think they’re damned interesting and I’d hate to see them ignored.

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