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Margin Notes

Canada’s missed opportunity at AAAS

At the recent AAAS meeting in Chicago, there was little promotion of Canada as a destination of choice for top researchers.


The following is a guest post by Helen Murphy, assistant director, communications, for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

Canada was both present and missing at this year’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago, Feb. 13-17. AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society and its annual meeting attracts thousands of leading scientists, engineers, educators, policymakers and journalists from around the world to discuss recent developments in science and technology.

Canada was well represented at the scientific symposia, with researchers talking about impacts of the Arctic thaw, fisheries management, brain simulation and seeing elections through the lens of mathematics, among other topics. But Canada was notably lacking in any official promotion as a destination of choice for top researchers – at a time when we do a lot of talking, at the federal level at least, about the need to do more to attract top researchers from around the world.

Just two years ago Canada rolled out a very red carpet as host of AAAS 2012 in Vancouver. And to set the stage for that rare hosting of the annual meeting outside of the U.S., we made the maple leaf a prominent feature of AAAS 2011 in Washington D.C., handing out our famous red Olympic mittens and giant Think Canada / Pensez Canada pins. Much time, energy and money went into preparing Think Canada pavilions for the exhibit halls at those events.

This year there was not so much as a Canadian booth at the exhibit hall, the presence of stakeholder groups was noticeably down, and the only red mittens in sight were my worn out ones from that 2011 venture.

Why the change? Our absence seems to boil down to financial constraints. In recent years the education branch of what is now the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development led the Canadian consortium for AAAS, which included a variety of government agencies and associations. DFATD stepped away from AAAS this year and other former partners did the same. The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada kept up its participation, as did the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, TRIUMF (Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics), the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, a number of universities and a handful of other groups.

The problem around this diminished role for Canada is the increased competition for international research talent and partnerships we keep hearing about. The EU is consistently prominent at AAAS, now touting its $105 billion Horizon 2020 research funding program. Germany and Japan are also active at AAAS, promoting their research funding opportunities through breakfast events, displays and presentations.

Canada has good stuff to talk about, too. Thankfully Suzanne Fortier, principal and vice chancellor at McGill University, highlighted the Canadian advantage in a presentation called “Building stronger centres of excellence.” Dr. Fortier was part of a panel discussion on “Global excellence: New drivers and innovative solutions,” along with presenters from the EU, Singapore and Denmark. She discussed how Canada has strengthened its ability to attract and retain the best students and professors, promote business-academic relationships and foster innovation through new research funding programs, starting with the launch of the Canada Research Chairs program in 2000 and including the new Canada First Research Excellence Fund announced in Budget 2014. Dr. Fortier shared compelling figures showing how these investments are equipping universities such as McGill to attract higher percentages of faculty and students from around the world.

What is most troubling about the lack of Canada’s branding message at AAAS, with its 8,000-plus attendees, is the spectacular fashion in which we went from all to nothing. In recent years our proud and well-staffed Canadian pavilion had not only high-end brochures about funding opportunities and centres of excellence, but also carefully planned photo and text displays bragging about our achievements, and videos bringing Canadian research to life. There were also workshops on research programs and international collaboration initiatives.

The AAAS annual meeting is a place where top researchers can get a sense of what’s out there and what’s new in research funding and partnership opportunities around the world. Unfortunately Canada decided to sit this one out.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Bob LeDrew / February 19, 2014 at 15:00

    That is a sad but not surprising post to read. This sort of event should be on the shortlist of places we should be prominent — ESPECIALLY after Canada presumably would have had momentum from hosting the event.

    Our federal government should have been there. Kudos for speaking the truth.

  2. Phil Hultin / February 19, 2014 at 16:12

    It’s unfortunate that we did not promote Canada as a career destination, but why are we trying to recruit non-Canadians when top Canadian PhD graduates cannot get jobs at Canadian universities? Two of my recent PhD graduates who went to top US postdocs (one funded by a Banting Fellowship, the other by NSERC PDF) were unable to return to Canada, and as a result are working at US institutions. Why are we funding Canadian grad students only to send them to foreign jobs, while spending our scarce resources to recruit non-Canadians?

  3. SC / February 20, 2014 at 19:19

    Interesting article about the AAAS and Canada. As a Canadian biomedical researcher, I would also like to see a more coherent/concerted Canadian presence in the EB meetings too.
    Canadians (citizens and residents alike) probably make up the 3rd biggest contingent in EB (after Americans and Brazilians), yet there is nary a presence, either from teh DFAIT or CIHR/NSERC or a consortium of our research universities.
    A bigger and more unified presence in teh international arena can only help the Canadian science enterprise.

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