How to Lose the Global War for Academic Talent: the Mismanagement of the Canada Research Chair Project

12 05 2017


In 2000, the Canadian government began investing resources in a project to attract top international researchers to Canadian universities. The Canadian Research Chair program essentially gives money to universities to allow them to induce promising and accomplished researchers to relocate to Canada. The creation of this program was motivated by a belief that Canadian universities were  losing talent to wealthier universities in other countries, chiefly the United States. The program may also have been inspired by the seminal 1997 book The War for Talent, although I don’t know whether McKinsey consultants actually played a role in its design (readers with insider knowledge are welcome to contribute in the comments section below). In any event, the creators of this program, who were in the centre-left Liberal government of the day, were aware that universities play a very important role in nurturing innovation and anchoring clusters. (Everyone knows that Stanford University played a crucial role in the rise of Silicon Valley). During the 1990s, there were complaints that Canadian universities were losing their top researchers to other countries and  that this loss of talent was ultimately going to undermine Canada’s capacity to raise the global research profile of its universities, engage in R&D,  and create entrepreneurial ecosystems. The Canada Research Chair project was thus a logical and targeted response to this perceived problem.  The CRC program has since been emulated by other countries, most notably by China’s famous Thousand Talents program, which provides big bucks to foreign researchers willing to move to Chinese universities.

More recently, a number of exogenous forces began to help Canada to compete more successfully in the global war for talent. In the wake of the UK’s vote to leave the EU, many foreign academics working in British universities have expressed the desire to leave the country. The people who are speaking of leaving include both researchers from continental Europe as well as British academics who fear that Brexit and the xenophobic policies associated with it, such as the plans to dramatically slash the number of international students the UK admits each year, will endanger the finances of their employers.  The need to capitalize on the narrow window of opportunity associated with Brexit by poaching top researchers from the UK has been discussed by the Presidents of the Universities of Toronto and Waterloo, two important hubs for innovation (see here). Then there is the Trump effect—US academics seeking to leave the country due to the election of a President who is xenophobic and, more importantly, is likely to cut budgets for science and technology. Canada’s current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, is known throughout the world (unlike his immediate predecessors who had close to zero name recognition outside of Canada) and has helped to make Canada’s  place brand even better. (Shortly before the final round of the French presidential election, I heard some French people joke that if Le Pen wins, they would move to Quebec and live in Justin Trudeau’s house).  I’m currently at a conference at EDHEC Business School in France and can attest that Canada is today regarded as a very attractive employment destination by many European management academics. The Atlantic, a US magazine, just published an article on whether the Toronto-Waterloo corridor can ever become Silicon Valley North. As the article notes, there is tremendous interest in the potential of this innovation hub.

In an uncharacteristically swift move,  the Canadian government announced in early April that it was going to create 150 new endowed research chairs to bring the world’s best researchers to Canada.  The government selected the number 150 to refer to the 150th anniversary of the creation of Canadian state in 1867. The real reason for this sudden investment, I suspect is all of the factors discussed in the previous paragraph.

Let me quote from the press release:

The Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, announced today at the University of Waterloo that the Government of Canada will invest $117.6 million over eight years for the new Canada 150 Research Chairs program. The program provides one-time funding in celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary. It is designed to attract approximately 25 internationally esteemed researchers and Canadian expatriates who wish to relocate to Canada so they can further knowledge in the sciences, technology, health, engineering and the social sciences and humanities.

The Canada 150 Research Chairs program will be open to top-tier international scholars and researchers from across all disciplines, including Canadian expatriates.

The Government anticipates that the drive to recruit new chairs will take months, not years

The press release suggests that the Canadian government is going to act swiftly and boldly to take advantage of the situation. Indeed, reading the press release would cause one to think that it had been prepared by the government of Singapore, a nation characterised by a thoroughly modern and professional approach to policy implementation.

Now just a few weeks later, the Canadian government announced that the entire Canada Research Chair program may be scrapped unless universities agree to fulfil some sort of equity mandate by filling more of the positions thereby created with women and members of certain domestically-defined ethnic minority populations.  By calling this entire program into question, the Canadian government reduced the incentive to academics to invest time in applying for jobs under this scheme. This lack of policy coherence is astonishing to me. The ability of the Canadian government to disappoint through the shoddy implementation of policies never ceases to disappoint me.

Now if the Canadian government was truly serious about recruiting the best and the brightest to its universities, it would change the immigration laws so that Canadian academic job ads no longer contain the alienating and vaguely xenophobic words:

All qualified candidates are encouraged to apply, however, Canadian Citizens and Permanent Residents will be given priority. 

The policy represented by these words is ignored by most of the U15 universities anyway and all it does is to suggest that potential applicants that Canada is a place where factors other than professional competence are considered when hiring for academic jobs.




3 responses

12 05 2017

It’s always disappointing when qualifications for a position take second seat to basically everything else.

16 05 2017
Veronica Strong-Boag

The chief qualifications for all well-paid and prestigious jobs, including the CRCs, have rested with long-standing preference for white men and the particular perspective they might bring to the creation of knowledge. It’s about time this changed.

18 05 2017

Veronica, diversity as measured by passport nationality is also very important for achieving excellence. (I say that as someone who works in a department that is very diverse by that metric). Canadian universities need to drop the _xenophobic_ boilerplate language that appears in their job ads if they are to capitalize on the Brexit-Trump window of opportunity for faculty recruitment. Norwegian universities have recently dropped their traditional hiring preference for Norwegian passport holders, in part so they poach top researchers from UK universities.

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