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The Globe and Mail

From green energy to Japanese lit, Ottawa chips in to reverse brain drain

Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear tours a laser lab at Ottawa's Carleton University on Feb. 13, 2012.

Dave Chan/dave chan The Globe and Mail

Ottawa has pledged an additional $124.5-million to attract some of the world's most promising minds to Canadian universities.

The money will be allocated among some 132 academics, including 41 newly awarded researchers, to help finance their research for the next five to seven years.

From sustainable development, clean energy and combatting diseases to the seemingly whimsical research into historical writings of Japanese women, the federal government says it wants to invest in programs that have a positive effect on the Canadian economy.

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"We are focused on what matters – creating jobs and economic growth. By supporting innovation, we are not only encouraging cutting-edge research, but also helping to bring promising ideas to the marketplace to keep our economy strong in the future," Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, said in unveiling the Canada Research Chairs on Tuesday.

Ottawa's investment is touted as a way of reversing the brain drain of academics who head to the United States or overseas in search of funding. Since the program launched in 2000, nearly a third of the chairs have come from abroad, and of those, 50 per cent are Canadian expatriates.

The announcement comes amid criticism from one of the world's leading scientific journals, Nature, which accused the Conservative government of muzzling its scientists from speaking publicly about their research. The CRC however, is an arm's-length program of the federal government; while it has autonomy to select which researchers get financing through a peer-review process, the program is funded by Ottawa.

The Globe and Mail spoke with three newly awarded chairs:

Timothy Kelly, University of Saskatchewan

Area of research: Photovoltaics

Funding: $500,000

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Currently, silicon-based solar cells are the most direct way of producing electricity from sunlight, but they are too expensive for consumers. Dr. Kelly is experimenting with organic photovoltaics made from polymers, essentially plastic, to increase their efficiency.

"The global demand for energy is just insatiable," Dr. Kelly said. "We can either go the oil-sands approach or take a more environmentally friendly sustainable way. I hope we can find a made-in-Canada solution."

Dr. Kelly was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California in San Diego before returning to teach at the University of Saskatchewan.

Christina Laffin, University of British Columbia

Area of research: Premodern Japanese literature and culture

Funding: $500,000

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Dr. Laffin – one of the few research chairs who does not have an obvious application for her research – says society can learn a lot from Japanese women from the 10th to 17th centuries. She studies the often racy diaries and written accounts of these "career women," who defy the stereotype that women in bygone eras did not hold any authority.

"My research does seem outside the scope of what most others are doing ... for one, I study people who are dead," Dr. Laffin said, laughing. "But there are periods in history when women are flourishing as scholars, mentors and educators, and I think understanding that helps us grasp women's status better today. It's very unique to have women in this period of world history write about themselves."

Her fascination with Japanese culture and language began when she went to Japan as a high school student on a B.C. government scholarship in the 1990s. Since then, she has published extensively in Japanese and lived in Japan for more than 10 years, surviving the recent tsunami before returning to Vancouver.

Julie LaRoche, Dalhousie University

Area of research: Marine microbial genomics and biogeochemistry

Funding: $1,400,000

Dr. LaRoche will study how subtle changes in marine microbes and phytoplankton affect the chemistry of Canadian oceans.

"Canada has a big coastline, and we are very dependent on the health of the oceans, especially in Halifax and Nova Scotia," she said. "And what you have to remember is that the microbes and the phytoplankton are the food for the fish. They are at the bottom of the food chain, so it's important that we study them."

For Dr. LaRoche, the CRC is a homecoming after 26 years. She left Halifax in 1986 to pursue further research first in the United States and then in Germany. She will pack up her lab in Kiel, Germany, on the shores of the Baltic Sea and return to her alma mater Dalhousie next month.

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