Brain drain or brain gain?

An improvement in science policy, not political leadership, is necessary to reverse the brain drain

‘Brain drain’ is a phenomenon that refers to the migration of skilled workers from one nation to another. In Canada, this trend was first noticed in the 1990s, when skilled workers, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields such as medicine and computer programming, left for the US.

This brain drain has been attributed to various factors, such as Canada’s higher taxes, a stronger US economy, and a passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 that introduced new work permits to the US for Canadian and Mexican citizens.

More recently, it has been debated whether there is a reversal in brain drain because of President Donald Trump’s election and his strong stance on immigration.

Reports have shown that by the end of 2016, applications from US students to the University of Toronto increased by 70 per cent compared to the previous year. As well, the university has seen a 20 per cent increase in the number of international students who will be accepting seats at U of T in the upcoming year.

Furthermore, the current US administration’s proposed funding restrictions for 2018, which include cuts by 19 per cent to the National Institutes of Health, mirrors funding cuts during Canada’s conservative government led by Stephen Harper.

Under Harper from 2006–2015, funding for research was decreased so drastically that many have dubbed it Canada’s “dark age of science.” The government controlled Environment Canada’s release of climate information to the public, and in 2008, it eliminated the role of Chief Science Advisor. In 2012, the passage of Bill C-38, which was enacted to reduce budget deficit, also resulted in budget cuts to government-funded scientific programs: 5,332 federal employees were dismissed, including 139 from Environment Canada and 436 from Fisheries & Oceans, many of whom were scientists.

Because of federal budget reductions, especially during this period, support for basic science has dropped. Some have argued that this is what caused Canada to lag behind in scientific research.

While many have attributed the growing foreign-born interest in Canada to the change in American presidency, university officials have also credited their own marketing efforts. Trump’s election may have helped direct the interest of foreign-born graduates toward Canadian universities, but the brain drain is unlikely to reverse unless Canada’s policy makers prioritize STEM education and funding to create more competitive jobs for graduates.

Canada’s ability to provide job security to STEM graduates and compete with the US relies on the federal government’s push to fund basic, investigator-led research that aims to generate new information or understanding of existing phenomena without immediate application or use.

Fortunately, Canada has already made improvements by appointing its first science advisor in 10 years, Dr. Mona Nemer. Although this is a step toward strengthening research and innovation, there is more to be done.

The Naylor Report, named after its lead author and former U of T President David Naylor, was released this April and outlined 35 recommendations the Canadian government should follow to increase research funding. The report stressed the importance of basic research and highlighted its role in driving scientific discoveries.

The significance of fundamental research has been recognized internationally. A notable example is the recent 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, awarded to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young, whose research involved the study of mechanisms that regulate the circadian rhythm using fruit flies.

In Canada, the impact of this research is also prominent. UTM professor Joel Levine, a mentee of Hall, was awarded a Canada Research Chair Award from 2015–2020 to support fundamental research on molecular mechanisms that dictate social behavior in fruit flies.

While these findings do not have immediate applications, funding basic research is an important investment. Doing so is likely to foster more STEM jobs in Canada, which in turn can contribute to a long-term reversal of brain drain.

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