KPMG audits and International Review Panel give CFI top marks for its role in transforming university-based research in Canada

Guest Contributor
April 23, 2010

The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) remains a strong, flexible vehicle for funding Canada's growing research infrastructure as it prepares to adopt a new strategic plan under a president and CEO. Three recently completed reviews of CFI's performance and value for money praise the organization for its central role in transforming university-based research in Canada, first under Dr David Strangway and then Dr Eliot Phillipson, who will be replaced by Dr Gilles Patry on July 1st (see page 7).

Two audits by KPMG and an International Review Panel (IRP) unanimously conclude that CFI has had a "tremendous impact" on the institutions it serves and has established Canada as a serious player in the global research enterprise.

The KPMG reports say that after 12 years of operation, the CFI continues to be relevant and should be maintained to ensure that Canadian research remains internationally competitive. To that end, it says that a federal commitment $1.5 billion over the next five years is required to support new and upgraded projects and facilities. CFI provides 40% of the budget of any approved project, which means a total of $3.75 billion for research infrastructure needs.

The reports attribute much of CFI's success to its arm's-length model and resultant financial and programmatic flexibility, contributing to its ability to take a long-term view to building research capacity in specific institutions and nationally. And while the reports contains suggestions and advice for possible changes to CFI's mandate and operations, the status quo is viewed as a powerful force for establishing and retaining research expertise. The reports gauge CFI's impact in meeting four broad national objectives: building research capacity, strengthening the research workforce, fostering productive collaboration (networking, interdisciplinarity among researchers, institutions and sectors) and strengthening Canada's capacity for innovation.

"The foundation model has contributed enormously. Some of the infrastructure projects we support are very large and take a lot of time to conceive, develop, build and commission. We provide money for various stages and institutions know CFI has the money in the bank and they can plan in a rational way and with certainty," says CFI president and CEO Dr Eliot Phillipson, "Our funding agreement is a contract and it contains multi-year funding … We're outside of government and not subject to political interference in the granting of individual projects."

Though largely laudatory, the KPMG and IRP reports suggest that CFI could broaden its scope and play a greater role in international S&T and provide operations and maintenance (O&M) support for research infrastructure including big science facilities.

"Increasing research competition and collaboration will place pressures on governments to invest more in research and, more broadly, in their innovation systems ... it may be tempting for governments to curtail such longer-term investments as they attempt to reduce public deficits in the wake of the current recession, but those countries that resist this temptation will undoubtedly prosper more in the long term." — International Review Panel

The latter was viewed as a "significant challenge" for large projects and the IRP said CFI could consider extending its O&M support beyond that which it currently provides, but only if it receives additional "dedicated funding". The IRP recommended the consideration of dedicated funds for a greater CFI role in international collaborative projects as well as greater involvement of social sciences and humanities research in CFI-funded projects. It noted, however, that any expansion into these areas would require funding above the level CFI currently receives.

The inclusion of the IRP in the the auditing of the CFI marks the first time it has used such a process. While long and labour-intensive, Phillipson says he is very satisfied with the outcome, adding that it "validates the CFI model and the innovations we institute".

Chaired by Dr Arthur May, president emeritus and vice-chancellor, Memorial Univ, the IRP reviewed the design of the work conducted by KPMG and derived positions on the CFI performance to date, produced conclusions and provided commentary on the CFI's future in relation to the four national objectives. The IRP confirmed KMPG's findings and concluded that the organization was "highly innovative in its structure and in the design and delivery of its programs".

IRP Members

Dr Arthur May (chair)

president emeritus and vice-chancellor,

Memorial Univ

former president NSERC

Don Aitkin

former vice-chancellor and president, Univ of Canberra

foundation chair, Australian Research Council

Michael Barber

vice-chancellor, Flinders Univ (Australia)

former senior executive,

Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization

Robert Dynes

president emeritus, Univ of California

former chancellor,

Univ of California San Diego

Paule Leduc

former rector, Univ of Quebec at Montreal

former president SSHRC

Glenn Wells

deputy director and head of research

programmes, UK Department of Health

former business development manager,

Wellcome Trust

Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker

secretary-general, Human Frontiers Program

former secretary-general,

European Research Council

"I was quite amazed. People from far-flung places say they wish they had an organization like the CFI," says May. "We should be really proud that we got it right and international players agree."

new strategic plan

The CGI will not comment directly on the CFI's new strategic plan until discussions with Industry Canada are concluded and the plan is approved by Finance Canada and Treasury Board. Phillipson says he hopes the plan can be released before his term ends June 30th. Until that time, the CFI is unable to comment on whether it will extend its O&M support and expand it to the support of major science facilities.

"We are speaking of a few months at the most," he says. "We have to be careful because our clients are keen to know what's coming. We need to manage the information."

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