Trump's travel bans and cuts to science could create a Canadian brain gain

U.S. President Donald Trump's efforts to limit travel into his country while simultaneously cutting money from science-based programs provides an opportunity for Canada's science sector, says a leading Canadian researcher.

'Scientists around the world are considering boycotting meetings here,' says head of U.S. science group

U.S. budget director Mick Mulvaney's planned cuts to climate change research and to the National Institutes for Health are prompting some scientists to push back against the Trump administration. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

U.S. President Donald Trump's efforts to limit travel into his country while simultaneously cutting money from science-based programs provides an opportunity for Canada's science sector, says a leading Canadian researcher.

"This is Canada's moment. I think it's a time we should be bold," said Alan Bernstein, president of CIFAR, a global research network that funds hundreds of scientists in 16 countries.

Bernstein believes there are many reasons why Canada has become increasingly attractive to scientists around the world, including the political climate in the United States and the Trump administration's travel bans.

"It used to be if you were a bright young person anywhere in the world, you would want to go to Harvard or Berkeley or Stanford, or what have you. Now I think you should give pause to that," he said. "We have pretty good universities here. We speak English. We're a welcoming society for immigrants."​

The latest executive order signed by Trump bans people from six Muslim-majority countries from getting visas to come to the U.S. for 90 days. (The order has been temporarily halted after a judge in Hawaii ruled the ban appears to unconstitutionally target Muslims.)​

Bernstein said he has already spoken with three experienced scientists who want to transfer to Canadian universities, and two have received offers.​

Rush Holt, head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science — the world's largest science membership organization — isn't surprised about this.

The association sent a letter to the White House, signed by all 182 member agencies, after Trump's first executive order targeting travel was signed in January, arguing it would affect scientists hoping to come to the U.S. Holt said the concerns didn't change with the second travel ban.

"We do know scientists around the world are considering boycotting meetings here. And they're demanding the international science society hold their meetings in other countries other than the United States. I don't like to see that," said Holt, who's also a former Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Adding to the anxiety, Holt said, is the budget blueprint from the White House last week, which would cut funding for many science-based programs, from the environment to health.

U.S. budget director Mick Mulvaney said there are cuts to climate change research because the president believes it is a "waste of your money." Mulvaney also said there were "tremendous opportunities for savings" through cuts to the National Institutes for Health.

Time for Canada to step forward

Holt said younger scientists have organized a March for Science in April to send the message they disagree with the overall direction from the Trump administration.

"With this administration you don't even hear rhetoric that they have any understanding of what science could bring them. What science could bring their supporters even," Holt said.

Bernstein cautions that Canada should not be seen to be poaching scientists from the United States — but there is an opportunity.

"It's as if we've been in a choir of an opera in the back of the stage and all of a sudden the stars all left the stage. And the audience is expecting us to sing an aria. So we should sing," Bernstein said.

Bernstein said the federal government, with this week's so-called innovation budget, can help Canada hit the right notes.

"Innovation is built on fundamental science, so I'm looking to see if the government is willing to support, in a big way, fundamental science in the country."

Funding science in Canada

Federal Science Minister Kristy Duncan has been involved in a science review during the past year that examined all federal research to make sure it is flexible enough to respond to emerging opportunities.

She also pointed to the increases in funding in last year's budget to Canada's three largest granting councils: the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

"We are committed to research, science, evidence-based policy. I'm proud of the investments our government made in the last budget. We had $2 billion for research and innovation infrastructure across the country. We made the largest investments in the three federal granting councils in a decade," Duncan told CBC Tuesday.

But Bernstein said that even with last year's influx of cash, the budgets for the granting councils still haven't kept pace with inflation in recent years.

"Those three big councils, they're the big ones who fund most university research, have not had a significant increase in their budgets for at least eight years. So the scientific community, the research community in Canada is hurting," Bernstein said.

Time to be bold

Duncan said she is aware of the increase in the number of foreign students wanting to come to Canada.

"We've seen an increase in the applications from international students, and I'm proud of the climate we're creating here, and we want to attract young people and to encourage young people to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and particularly young women," Duncan told CBC.

Bernstein just hopes the government acts on this opportunity.

"We didn't seek this particular position in the world, but the stars are aligned. And I think we'd be making a huge mistake to let it go by without jumping on it and taking advantage of it. So this is our time to be bold and to take advantage of what's happening in the world."