April 23,1998

Making sense of the CFI

Research fund had growing pains

The Canadian Foundation for Innovation, an $800-million initiative of the federal government to rebuild university research infrastructure, was announced last spring, but the policies and regulations are not always clear, which is frustrating for researchers and university administrators alike.

Concordia's Dean of Graduate Studies and Research Claude Bédard is among them. "It's been pretty tough from the beginning, because they had to take the time to constitute themselves," Bédard said.

As the regulations and policies are invented for the new body and deadlines for applications approach, Bédard likens the process to "shooting at a shifting target." As recently as last week, he attended a meeting between university research administrators and senior Quebec civil servants to clear up some of the ground rules.

Setting up the CFI included appointing administrators. Unfortunately, J. Keith Brimacombe was named president and CEO in September, only to die in mid-December. The senior vice-president, Denis Gagnon, is taking his place for now, although a new president, David W. Strangway, has just been appointed.

Then there was the jurisdictional dispute that arose between the federal and Quebec governments in December. Quebec protested that not only is education a provincial matter, but the CFI's largesse for new projects could involve unexpected costs for universities and research centres that would have to be borne by provincial budgets. These would include the estimated maintenance of new, no doubt expensive, facilities.

The compromise reached was that applications to the CFI by the Quebec universities would go first to the Quebec government, a compromise which seems reasonable, but adds to the bureaucracy.

On the positive side, Bédard said, the unspent $800 million is slowly accruing interest, and could be as much as $1.2 billion over the five years of the CFI program.

Share of the fund

Each institution's share of the fund is estimated on the basis of its grants from the three major federal research-funding agencies (NSERC, SSHERC and MRC). Quebec should get slightly more than its population would warrant, because it gets more research dollars per capita (30 per cent, versus only 24 per cent of the population).

While the bureaucracy has been a headache, Bédard admits that the new CFI project has given added rigour to planning. "We have had academic planning, the master space plan for the Quebec government, now CFI -- but we are dovetailing them all," he said.

"In addition, CFI is asking for an institutional research plan. We have never been asked for this before. And in the light of so many early retirements and the hiring of new faculty, we have new opportunities on a considerable scale."

Drawing up a research plan will identify our strengths, determine our future path, and then help us strategically hire professors who fit that research profile. "And if we plan to go into an area in a big way, we have to build in continuity, and make sure it survives the career of one professor.

"We are now hiring young people who may change the face of this institution," Bédard said.

- BB

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