Analysis: How the brain drain became a brain gain

May 17, 2002

Worldwide, there is a worrying shortage of scientists but Canada has made huge strides in tackling the problem. The THES reports

Canadian universities are at the heart of a series of research initiatives that has made it easier to offer new positions to faculty. Stories announcing new foreign recruits in countless university newspapers offer a contrasting picture to 1996, when Rene Durocher, in his former role as senior administrator at the Université de Montréal, had to implement cuts and watch colleagues leave the country.

"It was very demoralising then. So many people left because they saw no future for themselves," he said.

The future seems to have arrived and Dr Durocher is now executive director of the two-year-old Canada Research Chairs, which has helped universities attract and retain faculty. His former university has so far won 33 new chairs, ranging from philosophy through artificial intelligence to microbiology, from the federal programme that has so far announced more than 500 new chairs.

The success has been due mainly to a five-year-old infrastructure programme - the Canada Foundation for Innovation - that provides money to equip many science-based chairs. Carmen Charette, CFI's senior vice-president, said that with high start-up costs involved in equipping new faculty and provincial government cuts to operating funds, many universities had a hard time recruiting. But now, she said, many were able to secure more than C$120,000 (£52,000) for a post.

"You're in a much better position when you're sitting down with them, knowing you can offer (that kind of money)."

Dr Durocher said the two programmes worked well together. "We seem to have found a winning combination."

While he appreciates a programme such as the research chairs, 34 of which were awarded to his institution, Doug Owram, the University of Alberta's provost and vice-president (academic), said that associated costs mounted up. Once he subtracts 15 per cent for administration and a further 20 per cent in employee benefits, he is looking at only C$65,000-C$70,000 in salaries for the new chairs. Still, his university has boosted its research revenue from C$70 million in 1995 to approximately C$300 million in 2002 and is planning three new buildings.

Other Canadian research funding initiatives, such as the two-year-old Canadian Institutes of Health Research, have helped in allowing other research-intensive universities to tell similar good-news stories.

The CIHR, formerly the Medical Research Council, is responsible for all aspects of health research. It has risen from a budget of C$290 million in 1997 to C$562 million this year. The 13 institutes have received praise for their focused lobbying and targeted partnerships that would have been difficult under one big medical research banner. The CIHR says it is still too early to assess the success of their work, but it hopes to set up an independent outside evaluation soon. One sign of its success has been the rise of average grants. Researchers have seen funding rise from C$71,000 to C$102,000 in five years, with the CIHR pushing for a C$150,000 average.

The federal government regards research as an important engine of the economy. "Making our economy more innovative will reap significant social and economic benefits for all Canadians," federal industry minister Alan Rock said recently. His department is also funding technology clusters in various regions and Networks of Centres of Excellence, which allow partners separated by geography to form virtual research centres. A new blueprint from his department aims to take Canada from14th place in research and development among industrialised countries to fifth by 2010.

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