Canada Foundation for Innovation

Canada Foundation for Innovation

Building the Infrastructure for a Nation of Innovation
January 15, 2007
Knowledge-intensive economies and societies of the 21st century will be characterized by a cutting-edge research enterprise, a highly educated and skilled workforce, as well as a business, regulatory, and social environment that encourages entrepreneurship and creative thinking.
 

Government plays a critical role in promoting each of these elements. In Canada, the federal government has assumed increasing responsibility, particularly during the past decade, for support of the three key pillars of the public-sector research and development enterprise—people, ideas, and infrastructure. The specialized research funding agencies featured in this issue of InnovationCanada.ca deliver that mandate by supporting researchers (salaries, direct costs of research) and institutions (indirect costs of research, infrastructure).

Thus, the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) Program is directed predominantly to enhancing Canada’s pool of internationally-competitive research scholars through its support of people; the funding agencies (SSHRC, NSERC, and CIHR) focus their resources largely on the discovery of new knowledge and ideas through the support of the direct costs of research; and the CFI provides state-of-the-art equipment and infrastructure to institutions and researchers, without which world-class research could not be conducted.

Since its creation in 1997, the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) has invested $3.5 billion in more than 5,000 research projects in Canadian universities, colleges, research hospitals, and research institutions. The CFI’s support spans the full spectrum of research—natural sciences, engineering, health sciences, social sciences, and humanities—and in many cases brings the disciplines together in exciting and highly innovative new initiatives. Indeed, the solutions to many of the most pressing and complex problems facing society are often found at the boundaries between the disciplines.

Increasingly, the CRC Program, the three research funding agencies, and the CFI are working together to coordinate their support of the research and development enterprise, and thereby ensure the most effective investment of resources. For example, from the inception of the CRC Program, the CFI has provided support for the equipment and infrastructure required by Chair recipients to establish and sustain their research programs. This joint CRC-CFI approach has enhanced substantially the recruitment of the best and brightest research minds to Canadian institutions, and has reversed the “brain drain” of the 1980s and early 1990s.

More recently, the CFI has led a collaborative initiative with the three funding agencies and several other partners to create a national high-performance computing (HPC) network across Canada. This network builds upon seven regional HPC consortia in which the CFI has invested previously, and takes advantage of the exceptional capabilities provided by CANARIE, the world's first national optical Internet research and education network. This trans-continental HPC system will link virtually all of Canada’s research-intensive institutions, and will do for Canada’s knowledge-intensive economy of the 21st century what the building of a trans-continental railway did for the natural resource and industrial economies of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Much like investing in childhood education, the full economic and social benefits of investments in research and development may take years to fully materialize. Nevertheless, the impact of Canada’s investments in university, college, and hospital research is beginning to emerge, and points to an impressive return on the investment in the years ahead, if the course is maintained, as noted in each of the guest columns in this issue of InnovationCanada.ca.

In the case of investments by the CFI, one of the most visible benefits to date has been the success of Canadian institutions in recruiting and retaining outstanding researchers, despite intense worldwide competition. Closely related is the substantially enhanced capacity of Canadian institutions to train the knowledge workers and highly skilled technical staff that will be critical to Canada’s future R&D-based economy—whether in the private, public, non-profit, or academic sectors.

In addition, several of the CFI’s investments in multi-million dollar facilities have given Canada a competitive edge internationally and led to worldwide admiration for Canada’s science and technology enterprise—including, for example, the Canadian Light Source Synchrotron at the University of Saskatchewan; the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) Laboratory, led by Carleton University; the floating Arctic environmental and oceanographic research laboratory, the Amundsen, based at Laval University; the sea-bed research observatories, VENUS and NEPTUNE, coordinated by the University of Victoria; the Diabetes Research Centre at the University of Alberta; and the National Site Licensing Project at the University of Ottawa.

Canada’s research and development enterprise has clearly made impressive advances in recent years. With continuing commitment, and by working together, we can maintain this momentum in the future. The challenges faced by Canada in the 21st century will be great, but the opportunity is even greater—that of building a nation of innovation that will lead to economic prosperity, social cohesiveness, improved health and quality of life for all citizens, and environmental sustainability for future generations.

Funding in Action

By Briony Smith, Staff Writer, ITBusiness.ca

The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) has put the cherry on top of its long-standing commitment to funding high-performance computing with a $78 million investment to create a national network of supercomputing facilities.

Announced at an event held at the University of Toronto late in December 2006, $60 million will come from the new National Platforms Fund (which was formed to fund infrastructure and resources that can be utilized by multiple institutions and scientific disciplines). Another $18 million is coming out of the Infrastructure Operating Fund. The National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) also contributed $10 million over five years; this will go towards taking care of ongoing operating costs.

The project will link seven pre-existing HPC facilities including B.C.’s WestGrid, Ontario’s SHARCNet and ACENet in Eastern Canada. Under the plan, researchers could input their need for a certain function to be run for 48 hours, said CFI president and CEO Eliot Phillipson, and then that project would be routed to whichever supercomputers specialize in that area and are available.

This information would zip across government-funded non-profit Canarie’s CA(*)net 4 optical network, according to Canarie president and CEO Andrew Bjerring. “What makes it different than other networks is that it will make a single platform out of different resources and integrate it much more tightly.” Doing a single job on multiple machines is already a reality, said Bjerring. “But we want to link together resources in ways more than computing. We want to be able to have the data in one place, the software come from another, and the visualization happen elsewhere.”

To prevent the network crashing from the massive data loads, a dedicated network is in place. Canarie will also work with members of some of the consortia, including WestGrid, to develop software and middleware that will give the network a more unified interface.

At the event, Phillipson compared the network’s pan-Canadian, innovative properties to the pivotal role the Trans-Canada railway played in building the country.

In an interview, Phillipson said that, having already invested around $100 million in the seven HPC consortia across the country, the CFI would be building on its investment (and reducing research duplication). “They would likely all be coming back for more money, so it made more sense (to fund them as a group). Then they wouldn’t be competing against each other. They could work as a whole, instead of as the sum of their parts,” he said.

In a funding first, the CFI actually offered the money upfront. It hosted a conference held in Ottawa in the fall of 2005 that gathered the HPC consortia, along with HPC-concerned representatives from the provincial and federal government, and the private sector. “We put the $60 million on the table for a national system. If they provided a solid application, and followed the proper review steps, and it was found (by a panel of international HPC experts) to have high merits, they would have the funding.”

When asked what about HPC inspired the CFI to put the money before the proposal, Phillipson said, “It wasn’t something simply out there. We recognized that HPC is a fundamental, critical need for virtually all research.”

These sentiments were echoed at the event by Isabelle Blain, vice-president, research grants and scholarships, of NSERC: “High performance computing is one of the most important tools we have to drive innovation.”

Phillipson hopes to see the new network stay innovative by being ultra-efficient—he compares the network to a car, which is only used on a part-time basis, and goes to waste the rest of the time. Add in the countless specialities of the scientists, and many potential projects could go unrealized, or slower, or less thoroughly because their particular HPC resources don’t fit the bill. But with the easy access of a cross-country network, researchers can tap in wherever works best.

Phillipson said, “They don’t care if their research is done through ACEnet or WestGrid—researchers just want the access, hardware, software, and technical expertise to do their research.”

Hugh Couchman, scientific director of SHARCNET and professor of physics and astronomy at McMaster University, is confident that the hardware side is already there, but stressed the importance of making sure that there are sufficient connections at respectable bandwidth to keep projects flowing.

Excerpt courtesy of Transcontinental Media
Copyright Transcontinental Media 2007