As Ottawa faces fire for cutting spending on science, Ontario will today announce $100-million in new research funding in a move to keep top talent from fleeing to U.S. laboratories that will soon be awash in stimulus money from the Obama administration.
Scientists will compete for the new provincial funds and use them to conduct globally significant research, mainly in the fields of genomics and stem cells, where Ontario already competes internationally. More than a dozen researchers currently at work in the province, some of them world leaders in their field, were to attend today's announcement at Queen's Park.
"[Today's] announcement is about the fact that Ontario understands the value of science to our economy," John Wilkinson, Minister of Research and Innovation, told The Globe and Mail in advance of the event. "We value the work that our world-leading scientists do and the wealth and jobs that they help to create."
Some researchers have been feeling somewhat less than valued since January, when the federal Conservative government tabled a budget that will cut $147.9-million from three agencies that grant research funds to universities. More than 2,000 scientists signed an open letter sent to Prime Minister Stephen Harper last month in which they called the cuts "huge steps backward for Canadian science."
Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged $15-billion for research as part of his government's stimulus package.
Having lured several of the world's top minds, many of them from the United States, to its laboratories in recent years, Ontario is loath to see its previous investments go south.
"This kind of funding is going to anchor people in Ontario, there's no question," Mick Bhatia, director of the McMaster Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute in Hamilton, said yesterday. "As a scientist in Ontario, it's more than welcome, and it's not just the resources; it tells me the Ontario government really gets this."
Toronto-born Dr. Bhatia, who has been described as the Wayne Gretzky of stem-cell research, was nearly lured to California in 2005, but decided to stay in Canada to direct the country's first centre dedicated specifically to his field. He has since assembled a 70-member team of researchers from the United States, Europe and Asia, and has been concerned about losing this hard-won talent to American labs since Mr. Obama took office and pledged, almost immediately, to ramp up stem-cell research.
Ontario's commitment to remain a global player in research "is quite vindicating" of his decision to stay, he said.
Concern about a brain drain is "definitely out there in the air" among Canadian scientists, said Christian Burks, head of the Ontario Genomics Institute in Toronto. Though it would not happen overnight, given the couple of years it typically takes to woo and then relocate a researcher, funding announcements such as today's "give people a reason to understand that Ontario is as attractive a place to do research as the U.S. or the U.K. or anywhere else" that is trying to attract talent. "These kinds of things really reverberate."
Genomics in particular "is a very competitive and global game," Dr. Burks said. "You look around the world for the best people to come and work in your lab, you look around the world for funding. It's a global playing field."
The new fund will be administered by the Ontario Research Fund, an arm of Mr. Wilkinson's ministry, which supports operating and capital costs of research.