Open hearts, open minds and an open door

November 11, 2005

Generous funding and welcoming attitudes mean foreign academics are flooding into Canada and expats are returning. Stephen Strauss explains

Ask Yanqin Wu why she and her husband decided to stay in Canada after considering research positions in the US and Europe, and her answer is positive and precise.

"It was 75 per cent the quality of the centre here and 25 per cent Toronto," says the theoretical physicist, who is a graduate of a leading Chinese technical university with a PhD from the California Institute of Technology and postdocs from the universities of London and Toronto.

She observes:"I am Chinese and I am very happy to be here and be able to walk on the street and not be looked at" - especially when she is with her Dutch husband, who is also a member of Toronto's astronomy and astrophysics department. "If we were in a place such as Holland, a pair like us would be stared at."

The extremely cosmopolitan nature of Canada's major cities - by the middle of the next decade it is estimated that more than half of Toronto's population will be from a minority group - is a draw for some scientists, but so too is what is regarded as a vastly improved research environment.

In 1995, physicist Vicky Kaspi, after getting her PhD from Princeton University, received an offer of a faculty position at McGill University, where she had done her undergraduate work. "I was really not sure what to do. I had a talk with a Canadian on the Princeton faculty and I remember to this day what he said: 'Vicky, you are too young to die.'"

Yet in 2000 she chose to relocate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to take up a position at McGill. Although her husband already had a post at McGill, he would have been willing to move to Boston. But Kaspi saw the McGill offer as an undeniable improvement in her prospects as it included Canada Research Chair funding and infrastructure money from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, and it was accompanied by the promise that the university would be hiring other astrophysicists.

She is not alone. Sitting on search committees for other faculty positions in the department, she has seen a flood of applications. "When I did comparisons with friends on applications and search committees in the US, I found that we were getting lots of applicants, if not more than they were getting - and three quarters of them were Americans," she says.

An underlying factor is the anti-Bush factor. Applicants from the US regularly comment on Canada's consistently more liberal political climate.

"President George W. Bush has done wonders for our research," Kaspi remarks.

The increased funding in research and the people that it attracts are also creating a synergy that all scientists find bracing. In 1986, Tak Mak, a University of Toronto- affiliated biomedical researcher who had discovered the T-cell receptor, was offered a position at Yale University as head of a new laboratory. Finding the receptor, which allows the body's immune system to differentiate a foreign invader from a person's own cells, was seen as a potential Nobel prize-winning discovery. At the time, Mak's announced departure fed into what seemed to be a never-ending national debate over the inevitability of a brain drain to the south.

But he decided to stay, motivated partly by the university's nearly unprecedented offer of a C$750,000 (£363,000) grant to fund his research, and partly by what he, as an immigrant from Hong Kong, saw as his patriotic duty.

"One reason (I am staying) is that I love Canada," he said at the time. "If everyone who other people think is a hot-shot leaves, we won't develop into anything as a country."

Now, he says, the general excellence of Canada's research community makes it clearer than it was 20 years ago that migrating to the US is no longer necessary to make your mark in science. "We have a true constellation of excellence here now, and good scientists go to where other good scientists are. When I need to collaborate, I can find someone down the road or down the hall in Toronto to do it with," he says.

Another aspect is Canada's rational approach to research. "Canada is not subject to the very strong research passions that the States seems to be forever experiencing," says Louis Taillefer, an experimental physicist at the University of Sherbrooke and director of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research's quantum materials programme. "Here, you can get on with what you think is important and don't have to jump on this or that bandwagon."

He returned to Canada in the 1990s after spending a number of years in France.

The result of all this good news is that Canada is welcoming back Canadians who once left as well as arrivals from all over the world. The Canadian Foundation for Innovation, which funds a large part of the research infrastructure, recently tabulated what percentage of the 3,000 grants it awarded in 2003-05 went either to repatriated Canadians - largely returning from US universities - or to non-Canadians, and found that it was 40 per cent.

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