Apr 4, 2018

Canada has pulled off a brain heist

The 24 foreign scholars recruited by Canadian universities. See bios here. Collage: Canada 150 Research Chairs.

Seoul-born Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, a professor at Brown University known for her work on fake news, is moving to Canada. So is Alan Aspuru-Guzik, a Harvard chemistry professor working on quantum computing and artificial intelligence.

What's going on: They are among 24 top academic minds around the world wooed to Canada by an aggressive recruitment effort offering ultra-attractive sinecures, seven-year funding arrangements — and, Chun and Aspuru-Guzik said in separate interviews with Axios, a different political environment from the U.S.

The background: The "Canada 150 Research Chairs Program" is spending $117 million on seven-year grants of either $350,000 a year or $1 million a year. It's part of a campaign by numerous countries to attract scholars unhappy with Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and other political trends, sweetened with unusually generous research conditions.

  • Chun, who grew up in Canada and has lived in the U.S. since 1992, said she will launch a new "digital democracies group" at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, which will take on the problem of the online echo chamber.
  • She spoke of wanting to live in a country "with a strong commitment to public education, funding research and universal health care." "That makes a real difference to society," she said. She added, "Some of my friends work in climate research. Funding for that is disappearing and that’s disturbing."

Aspuru-Guzik tells a similar story. He will become a professor of computer science at the University of Toronto. He will have a concurrent position at the Vector Institute, an artificial intelligence research center where Geoffrey Hinton, the father of machine learning, is chief scientific adviser.

  • After 20 years in the U.S., Aspuru-Guzik worried watching the rise of the Christian Right and then the Tea Party. When Trump won election in 2016, that was the final straw.
  • Harvard came back with a "generous" counter-offer, it wasn't enough.
  • "They couldn't change the president. And they couldn't change the zeitgeist," Aspuru-Guzik said. "So I left."

The bottom line: "Canada is not perfect — “not a utopia,” Aspuru-Guzik said. “But I place my bets on Canada rather than the U.S. as a place for my kids to grow up.”

Editor's note: We corrected the spelling of Simon Fraser University.

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