The day after Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election, Alan Aspuru-Guzik, a prominent professor of chemistry at Harvard University, picked up the phone and called Canada.
For Dr. Aspuru-Guzik, who specializes in developing advanced materials for energy generation, the 2016 result was a signal to close up shop. Born in the United States and raised in Mexico, Dr. Aspuru-Guzik has family roots that trace back to Spain, Poland and Ukraine. It’s the kind of varied background, he said, that instills a predisposed wariness of political authoritarianism and economic instability. And the Trump presidency has put his instincts on high alert.
“Many of my colleagues have told me that they will leave the United States if things get worse,” Dr. Aspuru-Guzik said. “The difference is that I already think it’s worse.”
On Thursday, Dr. Aspuru-Guzik is set to be named one of 20 newly hired Canada 150 research chairs at a briefing in Ottawa. He plans to leave his position at Harvard this summer to take up a new role at the University of Toronto, where he will continue his research and aim to spin off startup companies from his scientific work.
“Great science is all about great people. So being able to attract someone of Alan’s calibre is a coup for this country,” said Alan Bernstein, director of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto. It was Dr. Bernstein who was on the other end of the line when Dr. Aspuru-Guzik made his postelection call, setting the wheels in motion for his eventual move.
A total of 25 Canada 150 research chairs will be established at Canadian universities under the one-off program, supported with $117.6-million in federal funding. Four chairholders were already named late last year, including computer scientist Margo Seltzer who, like Dr. Aspuru-Guzik, is leaving a faculty post at Harvard to come to Canada.
“I think it speaks to what Canada is doing here in science,” federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan said. “We’re in a global competition for talent.”
Several of the appointees who spoke to The Globe and Mail before Thursday’s announcement were enthusiastic about what they perceive to be a collaborative, pro-research culture in Canada. But many also expressed a sense of relief when speaking about what they were coming from.
The haul of prominent scientists attracted to the new chairs suggests that a predicted brain gain for Canada owing to reactionary politics in the United States and elsewhere is having an impact and that scientists are indeed voting with their feet.
For example, when asked what she would be giving up by leaving North Carolina’s Duke University to come to the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Anita Layton, a biomathematician whose work relates to kidney function, summed it up in two words: gun violence.
Dr. Layton, who did her graduate work in Canada and whose parents live in Toronto, explained that her children, ages 14 and 10, have recently been in lockdown exercises at school to practise for an armed assault.
“This is their world … It’s normal life for them and I find it really sad,” she said.
Family considerations played a role in her move, but she added that Waterloo’s strong mathematics department offers just as many professional advantages as Duke, with the added benefit of $350,000 in funding tied to her research chair which ensures years of continuing support.
Funding stability was a key factor for Judith Mank, an expert in the genomics of diversity, who will be moving her laboratory from University College London to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
Like that of a number of British-based researchers, Dr. Mank was thrown into turmoil by the outcome of the 2016 Brexit vote.
“I got really worried because all of our funding is from the European Union and we’re not sure if we’ll be able to access that,” she said.
At UBC, Dr. Mank will be supported by a $1-million funding tranche that goes with her top-tier Canada 150 chair.
The same amount has been allocated to the University of Saskatchewan for James Famiglietti, a hydrologist currently with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California who will become the director of the university’s highly regarded Global Institute for Water Security.
Dr. Famiglietti is well known for his public appearances in the United States, particularly during California’s recent, prolonged drought and testimony before Congress. A specialist in remote sensing, he has expertise in gauging water resources from space, and the impact of climate change on those resources.
He said the real advantage he anticipates in coming to Canada is in being able to access parts of the world that are undergoing water stress but where U.S. federal employees are typically prohibited from visiting.
“The goal is to begin reaching out to the hottest of the hot spots for water scarcity around the world,” Dr. Famiglietti said.
Among the newly selected chairs are several Canadian researchers, including Katherine O’Brien, a global health vaccinologist who is heading to Dalhousie University after her 30 years at premier research facilities in the United States and around the world.
“It was the right time for me to come back,” she said, avoiding any discussion of U.S. politics.
But for Dr. Aspuru-Guzik, the motivation for his move is clear: “I believe that life is short and that I should live in a place that is consistent with my values.”
The Globe and Mail, March 29, 2018