Massive Hiring Plan Aimed at 'Brain Gain'

From this week's issue of Science, page 651.

The issue of "brain drain" is a political hot potato in Canada. Business leaders have lobbied hard for tax relief, saying that high taxes have driven Canadian high-tech talent across the 49th parallel. Chrétien has resisted that argument, declaring just last month that such flight is "a myth." Indeed, demographers say that Canada actually enjoys a favorable intellectual trade balance, and that the outflow to the United States in particular has shrunk by one-third since the 1950s. But last week, Chrétien appeared to acknowledge the existence of a brain drain without endorsing the business community's solution. Rather than lower taxes, he reasoned, why not give universities the wherewithal to attract the necessary talent to compete in a global market. "Our goal is for Canada to be known around the world as the place to be," Chrétien told Parliament. "That's particularly [true] at a time when U.S. universities benefit from both permanent endowments and the generosity of private foundations out of all proportion to those of our universities."

The new investment--400 new research chairs in each of the next 3 years and an additional 800 "as soon as possible thereafter"--couldn't have come at a more critical moment for universities, science administrators say. "It's like having the capacity to build a hockey team with several [Wayne] Gretzkys on it," says Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council president Marc Renaud. "It gives [universities] the feeling that they can grow and compete with the Americans." Medical Research Council president Henry Friesen called it "a stunning announcement in positioning Canada's economy to compete on a world stage."

Each research chair will be awarded for 5 to 7 years and will be renewable. The allocation will be based on an institution's success in obtaining competitive research grants. To prevent major research universities from gobbling up all the funds, however, small institutions will be guaranteed at least one chair. The biomedical and natural sciences are each projected to receive a 40% share, while the social sciences have been promised 20%.

Two types of chairs will be created. The first, intended to liberate senior scientists from teaching duties, will provide roughly $140,000 a year for "star researchers with a proven track record." Universities can spend the money to hire a new investigator, to top up an existing salary, or to absorb costs associated with replacing the star in the classroom. They may also funnel it into indirect costs such as lab operations and utilities. The second category, which provides about $70,000 for so-called "rising stars," is intended to attract younger faculty to aging departments.

Whether the new monies will actually stem the brain drain is not clear, however. In fact, some argue that the problem may not even exist. Only 1.5% of postsecondary graduates in 1995 went to the United States for some period of time, says Statistics Canada director of education statistics Scott Murray, and only one in eight of them held a Ph.D. Overall, Canada is a net beneficiary of university graduates, gaining 33,000 university-educated immigrants annually while losing 8500 to the States. Immigrants are also three times more likely to hold a master's, doctoral, or medical degree than the Canadian-born population. "All of us know some people who've left," says Canadian Association of University Teachers executive director Jim Turk, noting the impact of budget cuts on university staffing. "But the plural of anecdote is not data. At most you can argue there's a trickle, primarily in the area of health care."

But there's no doubt that Canada has lost some exceptional talent over the years. For example, seven Canadians who moved south have subsequently collected Nobels. One of them, Stanford physicist Richard Taylor--an Alberta native who came to the United States in the 1950s for graduate school and never returned to work in Canada--takes issue with the notion that his career path is a "myth." Taylor, who shared the 1990 Nobel prize for electron scattering experiments that documented the existence of quarks, says the factors underlying the exodus are complex. They include insufficient spending on research, a relative lack of major research facilities, an unwillingness by Canadian industry to invest in research, and a culture that disdains elitism and risk. "It's not greed that drives people to the United States, it's ambition," he says. If the U.S.-based Canadian Nobelists had stayed in Canada, he says, "few of them would have won the prize."

Although he welcomes the additional chairs, Taylor says they will be insufficient without a change of attitude. "It's very hard for a government, especially a Canadian government, to be elitist," he says. "But that is what you should be if you want to do a good job."

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