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Can Canada’s universities keep up with the competition? Now they can

In the highly competitive international field of research and innovation, Canada has just made an exceptional commitment to owning the podium.

The Canada First Research Excellence Fund announced in this year's budget, coupled with the largest investment in Canada's research granting councils in a decade, represents a catalytic investment. With a commitment of $1.5-billion over 10 years to the research excellence fund, this budget is a tangible recognition that a world-class research system is a critical element of a vibrant, innovative and competitive economy.

Just as we've seen with our Olympic athletes, skill, tenacity and desire are not enough. Those attributes have to be matched by reliable funding for training, facilities, staff and the right equipment.

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Canada's universities have what it takes and are in the game. We have a head start. Our past achievements are already an advantage. The federal government's commitment to Canadian research and innovation has resulted in a suite of programs – fellowships, scholarships and research chairs. Through the economic downturn, Canada has protected these investments. This has been critical to the success of Canada's universities and has had a strong and direct impact on the prosperity and quality of life of Canadians. In addition, universities have been able to stem an historical brain drain and to attract and retain outstanding faculty, undergraduate and graduate students and post-doctoral fellows.

Even with all that, our world advantage has been tenuous. So this ambitious new research excellence fund, coupled with the commitment of enhanced funding in discovery research through the federal granting councils, is significant. Other countries are working at doing more, ramping up to gain an edge. Canada faces growing international competition as more nations invest in research and innovation, and reap the benefits of those investments in the development of more skilled and creative workforces. In short, they are matching our record and are working to better it.

The Canada First Research Excellence Fund is an exceptional investment in moving Canada forward. We have the potential to be among the leaders. And even while this new program will help Canadian universities compete on the world stage, it will also allow us to collaborate with leading researchers around the world. Research results increasingly come from global networks of discovery and creativity.

The new funding signals to others that Canada intends to compete with the best in terms of support for research excellence and attracting top innovators to our universities. The strategy recognizes that research excellence takes place at universities of all sizes and in all regions of the country. So the benefits will be shared by communities, students and faculties across Canada.

Canada's universities conduct nearly $1-billion of research for the private sector in Canada each year. They also conduct more than $1-billion of research a year with community and non-profit groups, particularly in the area of health. We all benefit from the results, whether it's a new procedure for joint replacements, a more accurate means of testing water quality or a clearer interpretation of our history. For all of us, this is a pivotal moment.

And we are ready. Half of the faculty members teaching at Canadian universities have been hired in the last decade. Together with more senior colleagues they are making large contributions and are ready to do more. We've also seen huge growth in the number of graduate students at our universities – almost 90 per cent since 2000. They are also ready to go.

Last fall's Speech from the Throne called on us to seize the moment, to make our mark, to build on our ingenuity and natural wealth. It asked Canadians to be daring, to secure prosperity, for Canadians now, and for the generations to follow. With this funding, we will do that.

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David T. Barnard is President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manitoba and Chair of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC).

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