News Overview

How Canada reversed the ‘brain drain’

Posted: November 24, 2015

In the 1990s, we feared a “brain drain” to the United States. But star recruits in science and engineering, such as UBC physicist Jenny Hoffman, have changed the equation.  The University of British Columbia is building Jenny Hoffman a hovering nest of concrete: a slab floating on air inside a room inside a room, the better to dampen vibrations far smaller than the twitch of a hummingbird’s wing.

They are building Hoffman this laboratory because she is the university’s — and almost certainly the country’s — newest, shiniest academic hire. The professor of quantum materials was lured away from Harvard to build strange substances that exploit the laws of physics in new ways.  But the lab isn’t what drew Hoffman, 37, to Canada.  She had pretty great facilities in the U.S. “The main thing is the really terrific community here,” Hoffman says. “UBC has definitely the strongest quantum materials group in North America, possibly in the world. And they’re really nice, collaborative, friendly people.”

In the 1990s, this country was consumed with the spectre of a “brain drain”: the loss of scientific, engineering and medical talent to the U.S. in an era of Canadian belt-tightening.  “There was a very real concern that the scientific community in the country would implode,” says Alan Bernstein, president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR). “Science is all about people. So when you invest in science, you’re investing in people. And when those people leave, you have nothing.”

A slew of programs, old and new, have reversed the brain-drain narrative. Hoffman may be the poster child for their combined effects, and their success at cultivating deep reservoirs of talent.jenny-hoffman-main.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterbox
The field of quantum materials is devoted to inventing and exploring substances that behave in novel ways under extreme conditions. Researchers are exploring materials, for example, known as “superconductors”: below a certain temperature they lose all electrical resistance, meaning they can sustain a current indefinitely. A material that superconducts at ambient temperatures would revolutionize many technologies — think lightning-fast smart grids and magnetic-levitating trains — and a moon-shot goal of Hoffman’s and many others is to find a room-temperature superconductor.

“We’ve gotten to the point now where we understand the laws of quantum mechanics somewhat better, and we can make predictions,” Hoffman says. “We can say, hey, even though we can’t go into a mine and dig this up, we would really like a material that does “X”: that conducts electricity without loss, that is harder or more flexible or springier than any material that we have today. Instead of hoping that someday someone is going to discover it underground, we can make it.” While the applications are dazzling, much of the research is pure, exploratory basic science — an enterprise that requires time and money.At Harvard, Hoffman built specialized microscopes to examine the properties of newly created quantum materials. But her interests began to drift, and she grew more interested in creating the materials than looking at them. She won some grants to do that, but felt isolated. She drafted a list of schools she might want to work at, and UBC was the only Canadian school on it.

With three kids under 10 and an impressive ultrarunning career on the side — Hoffman won the U.S. 24-hour national championship in 2014 and again this year, logging more than five consecutive marathons in a day — she hardly had time to aggressively scour the job market. Luckily, a series of meetings drew her to Vancouver.  One, in October 2013, was hosted by CIFAR. By creating broad research programs and inviting the best scientific minds in the world to collaborate, its goal since its creation in 1982 has been to give top researchers an intellectual home base, keeping the best in Canada and attracting new talent too. She was impressed by the community. At CIFAR meetings, “it feels like people are going because they really want to discuss the problems they’re working on.” She has since become a member of CIFAR’s quantum materials program.  Back for another set of talks the next month, Hoffman persuaded Douglas Bonn, the head of UBC’s physics department, to join her on an early-morning run in Stanley Park. She asked if they were hiring and Bonn told her they were looking to fill a Canadian Excellence Research Chair (CERC).

In the year 2000, the Canada Research Chair program created 2,000 funded positions with the explicit purpose of attracting and retaining the world’s top minds. The CERC program is an outgrowth of that, providing a bigger pot of money to an even smaller and more selective pool: 24 researchers each receive up to $10 million over seven years.

Hoffman was offered the CERC job. As icing on the cake, the federal government announced in July that UBC’s Quantum Matter Institute was one of five inaugural winners of the Canada First Excellence Research Fund, a $1.5-billion pot of research dollars to be doled out over seven years. “You need money to attract top people, because they can’t do their work unless they have enough money to buy the equipment they need to do it,” Hoffman says. The CERC was attractive and the Canada a bonus, allowing the whole group to “focus on pushing the science forward faster.”  Bernstein and others say Canada’s research-excellence ecosystem is better than it ever has been at retaining and attracting top talent. But there are still holes: even as mature researchers stay, academics voice concerns about losing young people to the U.S., especially to Silicon Valley, currently awash in venture capital. Canada will always be a small country in a big world.  Brain drain “is going to continue to be a threat,” says Bernstein. “We’re always churning out really smart young people, and we need to make sure they have opportunities here in Canada.”

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