Uh-oh Canada: Obama pledge could win back researchers

Brain drain to north could reverse as cuts bite and US President commits to science. John Gill reports

February 12, 2009

The mood among US scientists is buoyant after Barack Obama used his inaugural presidential address to emphasise his commitment to research, promising to bring the curtain down on years of neglect under George W. Bush.

But in neighbouring Canada, the future looks less certain, as President Obama's arrival has coincided with the stalling of public investment in research.

This is seen by some as an ominous concurrence that threatens to reverse the recent brain drain that has seen scientists flee the US for greener pastures north of the border.

Harvey Weingarten, president of the University of Calgary, told The Globe and Mail newspaper: "We have come off a very good period compared with the US, and now we are in danger that they will just drive past us."

Stephen J. Toope, president of the University of British Columbia, agreed. "We could be left in the dust," he said.

According to official figures, the number of US academics who were granted work permits in Canada rose by per cent between 2002 and 2007.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many felt they had been forced to move by shrinking research budgets at home and the Bush Administration's lack of interest in and support for academia.

The fear is that many of these scholars, as well as top home-grown researchers, could be lured south by the prospect of a scientific rebirth in America under Mr Obama.

Mick Bhatia, director of the Cancer and Stem Cell Research Institute at McMaster University in Hamilton, told The Globe and Mail: "I'm worried about the younger people, who are mobile, just starting ... and nimble. They go and then you have to start from scratch all over again."

It's been bad up north before

Canada has been here before. In the mid-1990s, a fall in public investment in research led to a significant brain drain from its universities.

The Government belatedly realised what was happening, and between 1997 and 2005 it more than tripled federal funding. Unfortunately, by then the damage had been done to many departments.

To make matters worse, budgetary growth has stalled since 2005, with funding increases often only a little above inflation.

Other developments - such as last year's closing of the Office of the National Science Adviser - have been seized on as further evidence that Canada's Government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is not interested in science.

But despite the concerns, not everyone is convinced that things are bleak.

Last autumn, Neil Turok moved to Canada from the University of Cambridge, where he was professor of mathematical physics. He said at the time that academics in the UK were "so ground down by bureaucracy, teaching and hunting for grants that it is increasingly hard to do good research".

Now director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, he is confident that he made the right move, highlighting the recent C$50 million (£28 million) public investment in the Institute for Quantum Computing, a partner of the institute.

This spending, he said, "on top of the already major investment made by the national and regional governments in Perimeter, is drawing top scientists like Stephen Hawking and big stars from the US to Canada.

"And Perimeter will shortly announce another nine world-leading physicists are joining, six based in the US. Like Hawking, they will be visiting distinguished research chairs."

Professor Turok also cited Canada's Foundation for Innovation, which he said is engaged in a major support programme for research infrastructure worth around a billion dollars. "I have been delighted at the support shown for basic science by the Government of Canada. It has put in place an excellent strategy and appears intent on following it through."

Private failings

Ken Coates, dean of the faculty of the arts at the University of Waterloo, also leapt to the Government's defence, pointing the finger instead at the private sector's failure to exploit researchers' efforts.

"Canada is really good at supporting research and technological development," he told The Leader-Post newspaper. "It is the commercialisation of science and technology where we need to do more."

Despite the contrasting moods either side of the US-Canada border, there are those who warn scientists in the US against getting too excited about Mr Obama's promise to restore science "to its rightful place".

One leading stem-cell scientist pointed out that although he is making all the right noises, he has not done a lot yet, and funding could be seriously constrained by the global economic crisis.

However, Guri Giaever, a geneticist based in Toronto who moved to Canada from San Francisco three years ago, said: "If Obama pumps up science, maybe Canada will follow suit. If not, maybe all the people Canada attracted might move."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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