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<< Back to September 2003 CRN Table of Contents

[Published originally in the September 2003 edition of Computing Research News, Vol. 15/No. 4, pp. 4, 9.]

The Northern Report: Computer Science News from Canada

By Gord McCalla

Now that the Canadian Association of Computer Science/Association informatique canadienne (CACS/AIC) is officially an affiliated society of the Computing Research Association, it seems reasonable to provide an annual report on important issues within the Canadian computer science community that may also be of interest to CRA members and its other affiliated societies. This year I would like to briefly focus on several issues: research initiatives, current enrolment trends, accreditation of programs, and the software engineering dispute in Canada.

Research Initiatives

The research climate for Canadian computer science (and other science and engineering disciplines) continues to improve. For several years the Canadian federal government has been increasing its investments in research and development as it tries to position Canada to succeed in the emerging knowledge economy. At the same time, many provincial governments have invested heavily in computer science and computer engineering, stimulating considerable growth in many computer science departments in the country.

The result of these investments is a huge growth in demand from computer scientists for research funding. In fact, for each of the past 4 years, the number of new computer science applicants for "discovery grants" from Canada's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (the grants that fund professors' curiosity-driven research programs) has led all NSERC disciplines. In 2003 alone some 114 of 900 new applicants were computer scientists (with many more computer engineers applying to engineering committees).

Fortunately, NSERC has continued to get increased funding to handle this influx of "news," with some $12.5 million (Canadian) in new funds having recently been allocated for first-time applicants over the next 3 years. The next challenge will be to make sure that even more money enters the system to fund these new applicants as they progress through the system, seeking increased renewal grants down the road. And a modest start has been made: in a recent NSERC re-allocations exercise the base budget for funding computer science was increased in recognition of the importance of the field and its incredible growth.

NSERC has also added considerably more money to its Canada Graduate Scholarships program, creating some 600 new scholarships paying $17.5K (Can) for one year to M.Sc. students and $35K (Can) for 3 years to Ph.D. students, while the existing program of postgraduate scholarships continues. In addition, NSERC has created several new programs, including a networks program to encourage "distributed centers of critical mass" of scientists at different institutions interacting with one another on cutting-edge research, and a special opportunities program for high-risk (but potentially high-payoff) research.

Beyond NSERC, over the past few years the Canadian government has announced funding of some 2000 Canada Research Chairs positions (across all academic disciplines) at universities across the country. It also continues its Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) program that has begun to rebuild university research infrastructure, often with matching funds from provincial governments and industry. While none of these programs is focused on computer science specifically, computer science departments have certainly taken at least their fair share of these funds. Overall, the general climate in Canada for research seems to be highly positive, with both levels of government actually supporting their innovation agenda with real funding.

Enrolment Trends

A recent survey of Canadian computer science departments has revealed a general leveling off in undergraduate enrolments with some universities experiencing considerable decline, especially in the early years of their programs. It is also increasingly difficult to get internship and co-op placements for students, and the job market generally for computer science graduates is soft. This seems to be at least a North America-wide phenomenon in the wake of the technology crash.

On the other hand, graduate enrolments continue to surge, a natural enough result of increased numbers of faculty members and increased research funding. Unless the job market turns around, an obvious crunch point lies ahead, with many freshly-minted Ph.D. graduates and not many new faculty and industrial research positions for them. This is certainly worrisome. One trend that may help to offset this worry is a widespread movement among Canadian computer science departments to forge interdisciplinary programs with a variety of other academic disciplines. New faculty positions may become available to support these interdisciplinary programs, and many new students may well be attracted to such programs, especially those who have not been attracted to traditional notions of computer science.


The Computer Science Accreditation Council of Canada (CSAC)-a joint body of the Canadian academic computer science community and the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS), the Canadian organization of software professionals-has drafted revised standards for both computer science and software engineering programs. At a recent meeting of computer science department chairs, however, there was some unrest with the conservative nature of these standards, and a wish on the part of many departments to expand the notion of computer science to include much more broadly interdisciplinary perspectives and to have standards for a much wider variety of programs. The new standards and these broader issues are now being discussed by CSAC and CACS/AIC.

Software Engineering

Software engineering professionalism is still a hot issue in Canada. Starting in the mid-90s, the engineering profession in Canada began to assert what it saw as its exclusive right to practice in the area of software engineering, an assertion that has been hotly contested by the Canadian computer science community. There are three interrelated fronts to this dispute.

The first front has (nominally) been an argument about the use of the term "engineering." In 1997, the engineering profession launched legal action against Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) for offering a software engineering program within their computer science department in the faculty of science. The basis for this lawsuit was a 1989 trademark filed by the engineering profession on the terms "engineer" and "engineering." Eventually, MUN was joined in its defense by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC, the organization of Canadian universities, which was concerned about academic freedom); CIPS (which was concerned about its members' right to practice); and CACS/AIC (which was concerned about both). In 1999, the lawsuit was suspended for a period of 5 years to allow both sides to work out a compromise. Despite several early compromise proposals, it now appears that no reconciliation will be achieved, even though the moratorium expires in another year.

The second front is the creation and accreditation of software engineering programs within and outside of engineering. For the past several years, engineering schools across Canada have been creating their own software engineering programs, variations on standard engineering programs and accredited by the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board (CEAB). Most engineering schools now have such programs, although the software-specific courses are often provided by computer science departments. So far, seven of these programs have been accredited by CEAB. At the same time, a number of computer science departments have created their own software engineering programs, variations on standard science programs, five of which have been accredited by CSAC.

The third front involves the right to practice. Several years ago, engineering associations across Canada began to successfully lobby for changes to their provincial and territorial Engineering Acts (under which the engineering profession is granted exclusive right to practice engineering) to make it easier to claim "emerging areas of engineering practice." These changes tended to replace the existing description of the scope of engineering practice (which heretofore had included a lengthy list of engineering works) with an essentially circular definition of engineering as that discipline that draws on engineering principles. Such a broad definition would certainly make it easier to "claim" software engineering (as well as many other areas not traditionally considered to be engineering). CIPS, CSAC, and CACS/AIC are attempting to see if further revisions can be made to these Engineering Acts to ensure that the right to practice software engineering is clearly protected for the wide variety of people who have the appropriate skills to do so, whether or not they are professional engineers. Negotiations with engineering societies and governments have not yet resulted in such protection.

Given the size and importance of the software industry, and the implications for everything from the training of software professionals to the final certification of software quality, the final reconciliation of the software engineering dispute is of great importance not only to Canadian computer science departments, but to the entire Canadian economy. Unfortunately, at the current time, it appears that it will be up to the courts to make the final decisions about the issues involved in the software engineering dispute, since no appropriate compromise positions seem to be on the horizon.

So, that's it for this year's report. Hopefully I will be able to update you next year with lots of positive news from the far north.

Note: The word "department" is used generically to refer to department, school, or faculty of computer science.

Gord McCalla (mccalla [at] is President of the Canadian Association of Computer Science/Association informatique canadienne (CACS/AIC), the Canadian organization of university computer science departments/schools/faculties. He is a Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

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