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The Black Hole

Attracting academic talent in the age of Brexit and Trump

Go get 'em Canada!


When I moved away from Canada in 2009 – there was a “war on science” in the country.  I won’t rehash the details – they’ve been far better described by people like Chris Turner – but the mood amongst academic and government scientists was not a positive one. This was also the time that my co-blogger Jonathan left the country for Harvard and we have scores of colleagues spanning all levels of science who did the same. While there is always international movement in academic science, this window of time seemed particularly acute for young people able to relocate. As we approach 2017, however, the mood has shifted and I think Canadian universities are poised to capitalize.

The perfect storm of political upheaval has happened from an academic recruitment point of view.  If you were open to moving to a new city and your requirements were “good science, nice city/culture, English speaking” then consider your options:  the USA has just elected Donald Trump, the U.K. is in a political dust-up regarding its status in the EU, and Australia isn’t physically moving anywhere…  Canada on the other hand is in a five year romance with a panda-hugging lefty prime minister who has promised to reinvigorate science in the government and academic sectors, including two ministers with science-related portfolios and the promise to reinstate a dedicated office for science advice – E4D has come up with good plans worth reading on the latter.  Time will tell how well this all develops (I’m still hoping policymakers read my wish list), but suffice it to say, there is a lot more hope in Canada than the doom and gloom being peddled south of the border or across the pond.

So, if the relocation options are limited and great scientists are in great supply, surely this means that Canadian universities are in a wonderful bargaining position to attract top talent. In professional sports, the Hometown Discount is a much discussed concept and should be considered by top flight academic institutions to secure people without having to dig too deeply into university war chests.  For our Canadian readers – think about hockey contracts: Steven Stamkos, Sidney Crosby and Jamie Benn all recently signed long contracts to stay with their home clubs – significantly less than what they could have attracted elsewhere.  As a further illustration, look at what Henrik Sedin said as he and brother Daniel accepted contracts to remain in Vancouver as part of the Canucks team:

“People who know us know that money is a small part of the whole negotiation. We’ve always loved it here, our families love it here, and that’s a major thing. To be part of a great team for the next couple of years, that was the most important thing to us.”

Ultimate lesson – if you have all the other pieces in place, you don’t need to overload people with money.  Yes, you will lose some people by employing this strategy, but those are the same people that will probably up and leave your institution when the next wave of political change happens. Find people who want to work in your city and university and make them good competitive offers, but not more. Think of all the excellent talent that has moved away from Canada. In my field, there are world-leading Canadian stem cell scientists based in the U.S. (e.g., Sean Morrison, Derrick Rossi, Catriona Jamieson, Paul Frenette). While I don’t pretend to know their intentions, I do think it’s as good a time as any to ask whether these and others could be convinced to come back to Canada for a little bit less?

When people hear about my research “start up” package at Cambridge (I had to attract grants to fund my own salary, my research, and my staff), they query my decision – “If your employer gives you so little, why do you stay?” My response is similar to that of the Sedin twins – I want to maximize the ability for my research team to succeed and I’m very happy with my family and friends in Cambridge.  The research environment here allows me to attract incredible students; I have excellent access to core equipment and clinical samples, and my collaborators are amongst the brightest in the world (and just down the street) – it would take millions to set this up elsewhere and the university reckons (correctly in my case) that they can get away with offering me less. Personally, I disagree with universities not paying the salaries of their research group leaders, but all things considered, this was a good decision for me at the time I was making it.

Overall, as with any job consideration, many factors come into play. Business magazines are full of lists of “things to consider when relocating” (e.g., Forbes’ list is here) and it seems that the common themes are “where will I live?”; “will my family be happy?”; “how will my finances look?”; “how are the people/work colleagues?” In the Trump, post-Brexit world, Canada starts ticking a lot of boxes in comparison to other places. Universities in Canada need to consider this set of circumstances swiftly and attract the best and brightest into long-term positions with real institutional commitment to their future success. There is a wonderful opportunity here and I desperately hope that Canadian universities and governments are paying attention.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Anonymous / December 26, 2016 at 11:32

    In my field, jobs are so competitive that this piece seems completely out of touch. There are hundreds of people from all over Canada, the US, and the UK competing for one job – several dozen of them are so highly qualified that any university should be happy to have them and so desperate for a job that they would work anywhere (regardless of national politics). If someone would suggest shifting top tier researchers across institutions rather than hiring some of these early career scientists (many of whom have the potential to be equally good or better), I would argue that that approach is brutally irresponsible. What Canada should be doing is investing in top quality facilities and young talent, and possibly taking steps to counter irresponsible departmental hiring practices (if that was even possible) that leave good young scholars pounding the pavement, so to speak, or strapped into eternal post-docs and teaching positions while the same five researchers move from department to department in search of better “situations.” I may have missed the main point of this article, but I think my point is still worth making.

    • Jennifer Musial / February 2, 2017 at 20:46

      This. I whole-heartedly agree with you. After GW Bush was re-elected in the U.S., a new stream of American academics started applying for, *and getting*, jobs in Canada over qualified Canadians despite hiring statements that outline a preference for Canadian candidates. This will only amplify in a post Trump/Brexit age. If there is a truly a concern about the brain drain away from Canada, stop looking for candidates elsewhere and cultivate scholars from within.