More migratory Canadians are flying back home

October 19, 2001

The THES examines how countries are turning brain drain into brain gain.

Canada cannot offer US resources, but it is fighting back.

There's a drinking game in the bars of Los Angeles called Dead, Canadian or Both. It involves tossing out the name of a celebrity and then guessing his or her status. The game is usually led by an expat Canadian, one of many in the city, who have grown up knowing how to distinguish unrecognisable Canadians from a crowd of Americans.

Members of Canada's higher education sector seem to have their own version of the game. Many can rattle off Canadian-born names such as Nobel prizewinning economist Robert Mundell or former Princeton University president Harold Shapiro. Others can simply tell you how many in their department have gone south.

Canadians began losing some of their best and brightest to the United States long before silent-screen star Mary Pickford metamorphosed from a Toronto actress into America's sweetheart. From a country of 30 million, it is estimated that there are 660,000 expats living in the US.

Free trade has made it easier to head south. The number of temporary visas, the popular tickets to permanent residency, quadrupled in the 1990s.

The attraction starts early for the academic. From the country's graduating class of 1995, 12 per cent of those with PhDs were living in the US three years later.

In surveys, opportunity is cited as the biggest reason for going to the US. Toronto-born Maria Klawe decided to leave Canada in 1980 because there were no industrial labs in Canada focusing on theoretical computer science. She landed a job at an IBM facility in California in one of the most active areas for computer science. "It was an incredibly exciting environment," says Klawe, who notes that every major scholar in the field was either posted nearby or would come to the area to give a talk.

Many say Canada should not even try to compare itself to the United States, a country that has a hungry military-industrial complex, enormous technology-transfer opportunities, large pools of private donors and well-established foundations.

It can afford the million-dollar labs that Klawe says some of her colleagues need. One example of the great difference is found in Jeffrey Simpson's book, Star Spangled Canadians. He points out that Harvard University put $200 million (£138 million) into genome research. That is almost double what Canada puts into genome research for the whole country.

To add to this, US universities pay better than their Canadian competitors: about 50 per cent higher on a per-student basis, with salaries for full professors at about 25 per cent higher.

So Canadian universities are fighting back with help from the federal government. While there is no official repatriation plan, most point to one programme that began last year and has become one of the most effective means for giving individual faculty added recognition and resources.

One university administrator calls the Canada Research Chairs his university's hunting licence. In its 2000 budget, the Canadian government provided C$900 million (£398 million) for 2,000 research chairs. The two tiers of CRCs are targeted at world leaders in their fields and those having the potential to lead in their discipline.

Added to that is the Canada Foundation for Innovation, a three-year-old scheme that matches federal and provincial money with private partners. The total capital investment by the CFI, the institutions and their partners will exceed C$7 billion by 2010.

The federal funding councils have also seen their budgets returned to levels they were before an across-the-board austerity programme in the 1990s.

Over the next ten years, Canada has the mammoth job of trying to hire more faculty than the total number it currently employs. (In 1998-99 there were 34,000 full-time professors). It can now attempt it with increased confidence, though still in competition with the US, which is facing similar retirement and enrolment demographics.

Canadian academics have been attracted back home. Jeffrey Mogil, researching the genetic factors of pain, was drawn to McGill University as psychology professor from the University of Illinois because of McGill's critical mass of pain researchers. Klawe is now dean of science at the University of British Columbia. She refused better-paid offers in order to help build a department that is now attracting world-class researchers. Recently, it announced a brain gain from the US.

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