Making a case for research investment in Canada: Can we drive reverse brain drain now?

Author: Camila Londono, 01/11/17

Brain drain was a real problem for Canada in the late ‘90s. A study by Statistics Canada found that twice as many post-secondary professors and teachers went to the United States than came to Canada in that period. This untenable situation—in which education and infrastructure investments in people were lost through decreased funding, higher taxes and high unemployment rates—led the Chretien government to create the Canada Research Chairs Program (CRC), which has been a huge success in recruiting and retaining top talent. But can we do better? Can we make Canada the top destination for researchers from around the world?

2016 brought lots of unexpected international political developments, including a vote for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States. Part of the messaging of both of these campaigns was economic, part was distrust of institutions and evidence, and yet another part was rooted in disdain for immigrant populations. In the meantime, Canada under Justin Trudeau has become a vocal defender of diversity and of science-based decision-making, but the economic side has yet to be addressed.

A common concern in the research community in the UK after the Brexit vote was the potential for decreased funding and collaboration in the wake of leaving the European Union. This led the government to commit, for the first time in over 10 years, to an increase in science funding by several billions of pounds. That infusion of fresh money, however, may prove insufficient in recruiting new talent given simultaneous restrictions imposed on student visas and more complicated regulations on the movement of people and materials hindering collaboration.

The situation in the U.S. is even more uncertain. While the recently signed 21st Century Cures Act increases research funding, including the much-touted Cancer Moonshot, these increases are dependent on approval by future Congresses, and are mostly funded by decreases to known successful public health programs. This bill also stands in the shadow of President-elect Trump, whose anti-science beliefs have become clear through his repeated attacks on climate change science and his choice of anti-science and anti-public education cabinet members. He recently requested the Department of Energy provide him with the names of scientists who have participated in climate change meetings—a choice reminiscent of the muzzling of Canadian scientists that drove protests in 2013. Fearing censorship and the destruction of data, climate researchers are already making plans to archive their research in Canada.

These uncertainties create an opportunity for Canada like never before. As a country that boasts tolerance and is heavily dependent in immigration, Canada could stand as a beacon for researchers who are worried about not only their ability to conduct research unfettered in the U.S. and the UK, but also rising intolerance towards minorities and women. However, this is unrealistic without a significant increase in research funding. Science funding has decreased in Canada since its peak in the 1990s, and even from the early 2000s. Despite evidence from the CRC program that funding makes a difference, government spending has remained mostly flat, and perhaps most worryingly, has become increasingly directed toward applied research (which, while incredibly important, relies on adequate funding of basic research for material, as exemplified in the discovery of CRISPR) instead of keeping a balance that helps accelerate innovation at all levels.

Research funding in Canada as percentage of GDP. Source: Government of Canada Department of Finance, Fiscal Reference Tables, Statistics Canada, National Income and Expenditure Accounts

If Canada wishes to attract more of the very best, and take advantage of the uncertain political climate in other countries, it must commit now to funding the research and supporting the people those countries won’t. Our country will be better for it.

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Camila Londono

Camila Londono

Camila Londono is a recent PhD graduate from the University of Toronto’s Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, where she studied the mechanisms of coordination of collective cell migration. Her interest in helping move research from the benchtop to industry led her to an internship at CCRM, where she first became involved with Signals. She’s pleased to be contributing blogs on a regular basis now. Follow her on Twitter @drCLondono
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