CFI grant triumph

CFI grant triumph McGill University

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McGill Reporter
September 7, 2000 - Volume 33 Number 01
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Doubters of the fundraiser's adage "You have to spend money to make money" might think again given the results of the most recent competition for CFI grants.

McGill took the lion's share ($61 million) of the $354 million that the Canada Foundation for Innovation had to award to the winning projects from universities across the country. But that sum is misleading; in fact, the University's 22 (out of 30) winning proposals will receive a matching amount from the province plus the remaining 20% of their budgets ($28 million) from industrial partners. That brings the total to $150 million in new funding to support McGill research.

That's what chemistry professor Robert Marchessault calls a "triumph" -- not to mention a vindication of McGill's decision to use consultants to fashion a more coordinated approach to the CFI process this time around.

After the mediocre (10 approvals out of 33 proposals) results of the first CFI competition, Marchessault, who is the University's CFI coordinator, noted that McGill's most successful proposal had been the genomics project put forth by medicine professor Tom Hudson. "Hudson had a consultant and that introduced us to the idea," says Marchessault. "We talked to him and learned how other institutions were doing it."

Using consultants looked to be the way to go and Principal Bernard Shapiro agreed to make $200,000 available to hire seven of them and cover administration costs. Ultimately, only roughly half that money was used, making the CFI results a rather good return on investment.

"We received almost four times more money this time around," notes Marchessault.

Why the need for consultants?

Unlike most other grant-application processes where proposals are examined by either federal or provincial committees of peer reviewers, the CFI process involves having the proposals approved first by a provincial scientific committee (one for medical science, the other for non-medical sciences), then sent to Ottawa.

Once in Ottawa, the criteria are not simply the scholarly merits of the proposal; the CFI committee, composed of business people and civil servants, as well as scholars, is also concerned with the Canada-wide implications.

"In other words, they're looking for high-level innovation involving highly qualified personnel in order to make Canada competitive."

That calls for a more coordinated and complex sales pitch than do most grant applications. But the bottom line remains the same in one regard -- the quality of the research has to be evident or you're out of the running.

The fact, for instance, that of all the brain-related proposals received by the CFI, McGill's Montreal Consortium for Brain Imaging Research was the one chosen for funding is an indicator "that McGill's brain research is among the tops in the world," says Marchessault.

That proposal, led by biomedical engineering professor Alan Evans, reaped $11.6 million. Like many of the CFI projects, Evans's is a partnership with other Quebec universities and neuroscience centres.

Similarly, the other big slice of McGill's CFI pie, epidemiology and biostatistics professor Robyn Tamblyn's Quebec Integrated Health Research Network ($11.3 million), is a partnership with other universities and involves the province's health regulatory board, the Régie d'assurance maladie.

While it is perhaps not surprising that the Faculty of Medicine figured largest in the CFI results -- given that it submitted the most (nine) proposals -- the share garnered by the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences was, to the faculty's dean, Deborah Buszard, "incredible."

"Five out of five of our proposals were funded," she notes, adding that she did a double-take when she first saw the results a month ago. Buszard credits Mac's success to the quality of the proposals, their links to researchers at other Quebec and Canadian universities, the utility of the research to people both here and abroad, and the vigilant support of her faculty's associate dean (research and graduate studies), Diane Mather.

"We encouraged people to make strategic alliances," notes Buszard.

Plant science professor Marc Fortin's Plant Productivity Network ($3 million), for instance, aims, with numerous partners, including the Universités de Sherbrooke and Montréal, Queen's and Laval, to consolidate and coordinate research on local plant productivity at all stages, from the gene to the field or forest.

In some cases, project proposals were, in part, a direct response to an abject need on the campus.

Animal science professor Urs Kuhnlein's proposal, the Montreal Research Centre for the Development of Microbe-free and Disease-resistant Poultry ($2.1 million), offers all sorts of possibilities to researchers, egg producers and the drug industry (the centre will look at chickens' potential to transgenically produce pharmaceutical agents in their eggs). But the fact that Mac was going to lose its decrepit chicken facility unless it could upgrade it was a major motivator in preparing the bid for CFI funding.

"This [proposal] was very important to us because our building had been condemned by the Canadian Council on Animal Care," says Buszard, whose only concern now is "how we're going to put up so many structures so quickly. Macdonald Campus is going to be humming."

Given that the objective of the CFI program is to provide the infrastructure -- buildings, labs and the most recent technology -- to boost Canada's internationally competitive sectors, it would seem to offer little to those in the social sciences or humanities. After all, how much infrastructure can research in art history, comparative law or Shakespeare need?

Nevertheless, the University made an effort to help researchers in the social sciences and humanities benefit from the CFI. The results include a multi-university project titled Montreal Network for the Study of Language, Mind and Brain ($3.2 million), led by communication sciences and disorders professor Shari Baum, which involves researchers in education, linguistics and psychology, as well as neurology and communication sciences.

The combination of different sorts of expertise appeals to Baum. "One of the really exciting things about putting this together was getting together with all these great minds that you don't usually get to talk to."

The excitement of collaborating with people with common interests in different disciplines, all to "synergize" some new theories or products, is also what drives Wieslaw Woszczyk, director of the Faculty of Music's recording studio.

His project, the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music, Media and Technology, was granted $2.6 million from the CFI to "capitalize on the unique resources that we already have at McGill in the various areas" related to auditory perception, recording technology and music theory, performance and composition.

Collaborators in the centre include psychologists Dan Levitan and Albert Bregman, neuropsychologist Robert Zatorre and Jeremy Cooperstock and Vincent Hayward from the Centre for Intelligent Machines, as well as people like the famed classical music sound engineer Steven Epstein, who is an adjunct professor in sound engineering.

"If you combine musicians with all those people in a specially equipped sound laboratory, from this interaction and all the mutual learning will come great improvements in understanding sound perception," says Woszczyk.

Both Baum's and Woszczyk's projects involve the purchase of costly, highly sophisticated equipment. But, as is the case with many of the CFI projects, the price of the equipment is either substantially reduced or waived altogether in exchange for the researchers' testing and further development of the spanking new stuff. These discounts count toward the 20% of each project's budget that must be raised in the private sector.

Now that the money is here, notes Baum, half jokingly, "you've got to do your purchasing fast while the prices hold and the models are still up-to-date."

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