Great minds fly south

September 3, 1999

Introducing a profile of Canadian research, Philip Fine looks at why the country's best brains are heading for the US. Overleaf, he reports on other diverse projects The argument in Canada over the nation's ability to retain its best minds has become so loud that academics may want to leave the country just to avoid another article on the subject.

The argument centres on a catch-phrase - brain drain - that in this country has joined the ranks of road rage or the space race. But the hope is that recent across-the-board increases in research funding may end up directing all arguments to the universities' moot courts.

The term itself has also become a divining rod to locate the political stream of an organisation. Many on the right trot out brain drain in the reports that also call for lower US-style taxes. Those on the left react to these calls, where a solution to the talent loss must be implemented, by saying the problem is all just free-market propaganda. And the two offer up contradictory statistics.

The right likes to quote the Conference Board of Canada, which says professionals emigrating to the US jumped almost sixfold, from 17,000 in 1986 to 98,000 in 1997.

Groups such as the Canadian Association of University Teachers discount that report. They cite a rival study that shows a net gain. Only 8,500 university-educated Canadians moved to the US each year between 1990 and 1996, says Statistics Canada, while the country gained four times that in university-educated immigrants.

The marked difference in the two studies' results comes from the Conference Board's use of US visa renewals, the document of choice for those awaiting a green card allowing permanent residence in the US. Critics say that stacks the numbers because more than just relocated Canadians apply for visas; they can be used by a professor giving guest lectures several times a year.

But while the CAUT is trying to silence the alarm bells, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada seems to like the sound. Using their own survey of professors who did, in fact, leave the country (26 per cent of the assistant professorships in Canada were lost during the first seven years of the decade), it found that many left for better opportunities, resources and salaries. The AUCC's Robert Giroux told a House of Commons standing committee on finance last year that Canada has "become a training ground of great researchers for the US and other countries". One and a half per cent of Canada's 300,000 graduates in 1995 moved to the US.

Tom Brzustowski, president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, says the people leaving have too often been "leaders" - associate professors with about ten years' experience who relocate and take a team of graduate students with them.

Nevertheless, he backs the Statistics Canada study that talks of a net gain. "I stopped using the phrase brain drain," says Dr Brzustowski, who probably knows that using it too often in public could make enemies of those who do not always understand the need for strong federal granting councils. He says he does not want the tax cuts many provincial premiers are beginning to whisper about in their constituents' ears "if the tax cuts come at the expense of increases in research funding".

The theory he and his counterpart at the Medical Research Council, Henry Friesen, seem to agree on, is that recent funding increases have lured Canadian researchers back from abroad and have convinced others to stay. After more than half a decade of the worst cutbacks anyone seems to remember, the stories are a welcome relief.

"Modest but improved health research funding in the past two years alone has created opportunities in Canada for more than 450 researchers who otherwise would have looked elsewhere for financing of their scientific projects," said Dr Friesen, who will see the MRC's budget jump to Can$484 million (Pounds 204 million) in 2001-02, from 1997-98's stretched Can$238 million.

Ron Worton, director of the Research Institute at the Ottawa Hospital's general campus and a University of Ottawa professor, would not like to turn the clock back to 1991. Since the introduction of some key infrastructure funding schemes, he has finally been able to make attractive offers to researchers who could have easily been snapped up by a US university hospital.

Even with the new funding at all four research councils, Canada's research budget is still only about a half to a third pro rata of what the US spends on research. That gap helps to tempt young and mobile Canadian researchers south, as well as the leaders Dr Brzustowski mentions. Much of that differential was widened from 1993 to 1997 when the Clinton administration kept US research in a strong funding position, while Jean Chretien's government, looking to slash Canada's deficit, cut Can$1 billion from education, or about 23 per cent of all money going to universities.

Exacerbating that loss and negating some of the recent gains is the fact that most Canadian universities still suffer from provincial government cuts. Increased federal grants have to pay for a lot of overheads that used

to be covered by the provinces and the universities.

"If Canada really does want to become uncoupled from its perception as a country that depends on commodities, with our dollar going up and down every time someone wants to sell gold somewhere, then we have to move toward a competitive level in the area of research funding," says Dr Brzustowski, who believes the dream of getting the country's per-capita research investment on a par with the US is attainable. "We're working toward that."

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