Canada’s $200-million lure pulls in 19 big-name researchers

Posted on May 18, 2010 in Education Debates

Source: — Authors: – News/Politics -Other countries mourning their loss of scientific talent in brain drain
Published on Monday, May. 17, 2010. Last updated on Tuesday, May. 18, 2010 .   Elizabeth Church, Education Reporter

A $200-million international recruitment drive is bringing 19 leading researchers to Canadian campuses with multimillion-dollar grants that are setting off alarm bells over a potential brain drain in other countries.

The researchers – half recruited from the United States, with four from Britain and the rest from Germany, France and Brazil – will each receive $10-million over seven years as the first group of Canada Excellence Research Chairs. They represent Ottawa’s most forceful effort yet to signal its commitment to big science, something critics say has been badly lacking.

“Canada has to become more than ever a magnet for talent,” said Industry Minister Tony Clement, in Toronto to name the successful applicants. The announcement, he said, builds on other federal initiatives, such investments in campus building projects as part of its stimulus spending and the Vanier scholarships for graduate students. All are central, he said, to the government’s innovation agenda.

“Talk is cheap. We are actually doing,” Mr. Clement said later in an interview, referring to critics in the science community who say the Harper government has not committed to research in the same way as U.S. President Barack Obama and other foreign leaders.

The scientists’ appointments mark the endgame in a complicated two-year process that saw some schools outbid in the final stretch by foreign campuses intent on keeping big-name faculty. It also underlines the high political stakes involved in recruiting big-name researchers at a time when most countries – including Canada – are pinning their economic hopes on scientific advances.

While Canadian cabinet ministers held press conferences at 13 campuses across the country Monday to crow about our gains, the British press ran angst-filled stories over the loss of four top-flight academics.

In all, 13 universities will welcome these scientists to their campuses, most with colleagues and graduate students in tow. As part of the recruitment package, several of their spouses were offered academic posts at their new campuses as well.

The list of successful schools is a surprise both for who is on it and who is not. The veterinary college at tiny University of Prince Edward Island made the final cut and managed to recruit a candidate, while research powerhouses such as McGill University did not. There also is not a single female researcher among the 19 spots, an indication of how few women hold senior positions in science and engineering, the fields that dominate the winning entries.

University of California professor Ian Gardner says his colleagues were puzzled by his decision to pull up stakes from the Davis campus west of San Francisco to move to Prince Edward Island.

“They told me I was out of my mind,” Prof. Gardner, an epidemiologist who will study the health of fish stocks, said with a chuckle.

Prof. Gardner, an Australian, said the UPEI offer came at the right time in his career. The small size of the campus and the attention devoted to his field there was an attraction, although the prospect of many connecting flights for international travel was not. “It’s a bit isolated, but I’m focusing on the positives,” he said.

His arrival is a coup for the Charlottetown campus. “It’s really a huge vindication for all the small universities in Canada,” said Ian Dahoo, a fellow epidemiologist who has known Prof. Gardner for two decades and was key in recruiting him.

At the University of Western Ontario, the appointment of Cambridge neuroscientist Adrian Owen is creating an international stir. Prof. Owen, who leads a team conducting research on individuals with severe brain injuries, has gained prominence for his ability to communicate with subjects in a vegetative state. He will bring a team of four or more with him and expects that to grow to between 20 and 30 with additional funding from the university.

The long-term nature of the funding and the university’s existing facilities and expertise are what convinced him to make the move. “I wasn’t looking to leave Cambridge, but when I saw the offer on the table, well, pardon the pun, it was a no-brainer,” he said. “It is seven years of excellent funding and Western is more than matching it.”

Not all schools were able to get the researchers they were after. The University of Toronto received two chairs, but lost two others to “a bit of arm-wrestling” with their existing schools, Mr. Clement said.

The program had planned to award 20 chairs, but fell short by one, because of competition, he said. Schools made the final cut based on their proposal and candidate, so if a researcher backed out, they did not have a second chance to look for a replacement and the money went somewhere else.

“This was a chess game. It was totally strategy,” said University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera. “You had to engage these people and find out what it would take to move them and then anticipate if they had a counter-offer, how you would counter. We ran into a bit of that.”

U of A attracted four chairs – more than any other campus – including two from Britain. It also recruited virologist Michael Houghton, a member of the team that discovered the hepatitis C virus. His arrival was made possible with an added $80-million in private and provincial funding.

At a time when many universities are cutting programs to balance budgets, the massive effort required to attract these scholars has come under fire. A report by Toronto-Dominion Bank, also released Monday, warns that a huge investment will be required in the next six years to meet the rise in demand for a college or university degree in some parts of the country. It raises an alarm about falling quality, in part because of increasing class sizes and the rising use of occasional instructors.

Millions for top researchers is great, said economist Don Drummond, one of the report’s authors, but does not address declining standards in undergraduate education. “I’d still like to get my daughter into a smaller classroom,” he said.

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