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Genes, isotopes and oil spills top list for research funding boost

The federal government's primary vehicle for enabling big science has just made a $333-million delivery.

On Friday, officials with the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) named its first new recipients of research infrastructure funding since 2012. The list includes dozens of science projects across the country and offers a broad snapshot of Canada's research strengths and aspirations.

The top three awards include: $23.3-million for a national genomics network run by the University of British Columbia, McGill University and Toronto's SickKids Hospital; $13.5-million to enhance ARIEL, a rare isotopes lab at the TRIUMF particle accelerator in Vancouver; and nearly $12.4-million for the Churchill Marine Observatory, a new facility proposed by the University of Manitoba for studying the effects of oil spills in the Arctic.

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In each case, the CFI funds up to a maximum of 40 per cent of the cost of a major project with the remaining 60 per cent coming from provincial and other sources.

The announcement marks the final tranche of money to be allocated from the foundation's innovation fund – and one of the smallest in CFI's history – until it can access a $1.33-billion top-up that the Harper government has promised starting in 2017.

With competition extremely stiff this round, many of the winners, including the genome network, were the products of collaborative bids involving multiple players.

"We've tried to encourage the institutions to work together," said Gilles Patry, the foundation's president and CEO. "It allows us to optimize the investments we're making and create synergy between researchers."

In the case of the genome network, the cash infusion will be used to purchase enough hardware to sequence a staggering 20,000 human genomes per year together with a powerful computer system for analyzing the reams of data that will result.

The expanded capability will put Canada on par with the UK and other countries who are currently stepping up efforts to mine genetic information across their populations in the search for clues to a range of diseases, said Steven Jones, a bioinformaticist at UBC and the principal investigator on the project.

"We can look at the genetics across a very large number of cancer patients at various stages of treatment, we can look at entire populations with immune diseases, we can look at disorders like autism spectrum disorder and really get to grips with what are the causative changes within these diseases," he added.

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Another winner in the genomics arena is Kym Boycott of the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa, whose lab provided the venue for the CFI announcement. Dr. Boycott will receive $7.6-million for her efforts to use genetics to identify and diagnose hundreds of rare childhood diseases.

Other winners in the 7 to 10 million dollar range include:

  • a Laval University laboratory specializing in neurophotonics, an emerging technology which uses light to study molecular processes in the brain,
  • a Queen’s University-led platform for nanotechnology design and manufacturing
  • a brain imaging centre at McGill University

Roughly $12-million will be split by the University of Calgary and Carleton University for Canadian participation in two projects underway at CERN, the European particle physics facility near Geneva, Switzerland.

Feridun Hamdullahpur, president of the University of Waterloo and current chair of the U15 group of Canadian research-intensive universities, said the CFI funding forms an essential part of Canada's research landscape.

"If we want to attract and retain the best and brightest in Canada, programs like CFI are a necessity to help keep them here."

Unlike the much-anticipated Canada First Excellence Research Fund, a Harper government program whose first awards are expected this summer, CFI funding carries no requirement to line up with government-imposed policy priorities. Awards are based solely on scientific peer review.

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Ed Holder, Minister of State for Science and Technology, said the Harper government's recently updated science strategy, "recognizes the critical importance of CFI and research infrastructure," and that the $1.33-billion investment announced in the latest federal budget would allow CFI to maintain its role going forward.

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