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IN MY OPINION

How Canada can attract international talent and improve knowledge exchange

A long-term commitment to sustaining a highly diverse talent pool is the cornerstone of robust economic and social policies.

By CATARINA FERREIRA & CORNELYA KLÜTSCH | JUL 16 2018

The “talent economy,” consisting of highly skilled personnel from the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, is the linchpin of a productive society and economy. Maintaining knowledge-sharing in these fields relies on training, retaining and attracting global talent. It also requires encouraging international and inter-sectorial experiences (i.e., within academia, governments, industry and NGOs) for domestic and foreign researchers –otherwise known as “brain circulation” [PDF]. Indeed, international and inter-sectorial mobility should be a part of career development for scientists to become leaders in increasingly multi- and interdisciplinary professional environments.

Canada faces multiple challenges to sustain a well-rounded talent pool due partially to a strong financial disinvestment in science over the last decade and to an aging population. While Canada trains a large number of international STEM students, there is still a general reluctance of domestic Canadian university students to study abroad and experience international settings, with sobering implications for Canada’s international reputation and national economy. For example, about 53 percent of biotechnology companies in Canada have reported skill shortages among R&D workers, of which interpersonal skills are ranked at the top, followed by business development and management/leadership skills.

To harness effectively recent federal financial investments in science that could increase brain circulation, it is important to understand key motivations and barriers for domestic scientists who are considering spending a part of their career abroad, or for international scientists coming to Canada to gain experience in different sectors. Finances, bureaucracy and family commitments are major barriers for researchers to gain international or inter-sectorial experience, as are career stage and gender (see here, here and here). Overcoming these barriers will lead to a stronger, more diverse and inclusive talent pool better equipped to tackle global challenges, thereby ensuring Canada’s future economic and societal prosperity. Here, we present some strategical initiatives Canada should implement to support mobility of researchers between sectors and countries and nurture knowledge exchange.

Create opportunities for an inclusive and diverse talent pool

  • Flexibility in recruitment at different career stages: Recruitment of experienced researchers brings knowledge and leadership, while that of early-career researchers adds highly-driven innovative personnel. Despite being designed to target different career stages, the Canada Research Chair program typically attracts higher-level researchers. Moreover, minority and early-career researchers face specific challenges because of intersectionality and short-term appointments that challenge their long-term prospects in science and opportunities for inter-sectorial experiences. Scandinavia and the post-Brexit U.K. have commissioned studies to characterize their research communities and understand the motivations and barriers for individual mobility. To the best of our knowledge, such a study is not available for Canada, which hampers the design of tailored policy initiatives that ensure adequate investments are made for each career stage.
  • Family matters: For researchers with families, major considerations that underpin their decision to leave their country of origin are the provision of spousal support or of salaries compatible with supporting a family, and concerns of how mobility will affect the partner’s career. Regarding international mobility, moving costs or expenses associated with maintaining two households in case the family stays in the country of origin are important factors. Some funding agencies, for example in Sweden, offer researchers spousal support and moving-cost allowances. In other countries, negotiating positions for the partner as part of the recruitment package is becoming standard. These incentives need to be systematically built into Canadian funding schemes to convince top talent to move to Canada.
  • Virtual mobility to increase minorities’ international mobility: Some researchers do not have the opportunity or financial means to go abroad. Sweden’s Global Links for Strong Research and Innovation Milieus and Finland’s MOTIVE program with China have pioneered the introduction of pilot programs that are entirely based in the virtual world to aid in connecting scientists globally. These programs favour minority groups in particular, making them critical in promoting diversity and providing exemplary frameworks that could be easily implemented by the Canadian government and funding agencies.
  • Inter-sectorial mobility to support interdisciplinary expertise: Programs that support cross-sectorial experiences at any career stage will expose scientists to diverse and global situations, thereby promoting their leadership, creativity and adaptability skills which are crucial to drive research and innovation. Canada’s Industrial Research Chair Program is a good first step in this direction, although it excludes explicitly early-career scientists. Thus, programs encouraging work across sectors are highly warranted.

Break institutional barriers and bureaucracy

  • Bureaucracy related to immigration procedures: While acknowledging Canada’s Herculean efforts to expedite immigration procedures, we as highly skilled immigrant workers have personally experienced repeated delays and changes within these processes that often made us question our decision to stay in Canada. International researchers are clearly disadvantaged by these procedures, which are incredibly time-consuming, bureaucratic and expensive, with the aggravating circumstance that many positions (e.g., for the provincial and federal governments) prioritize Canadian citizens and permanent-resident holders. Therefore, promoting brain circulation will require the relaxation of some eligibility criteria, which will increase transparency so that international researchers can make informed decisions about their real career prospects in Canada.
  • Institutional support for international and inter-sectorial mobility and knowledge exchange: Most universities lack adequate knowledge, resources and infrastructure to support foreign postgraduates or scientists with the sorts of transitions that promote knowledge exchange and transfer. By providing training to research offices at universities or appointing liaison staff who specialize in dealing with the idiosyncrasies of integrating foreign researchers (similar to the support given to undergraduate and graduate students), Canadian universities can be conduits for developing relevant skill sets and serve as networking hubs connecting different sectors for resident and foreign researchers. Scientific diasporas can provide additional opportunities for networking and mentoring, but to our knowledge there is not an organized network of scientific diasporas in STEM fields in Canada. Furthermore, academic researchers who have ventured into other sectors may face opposition to returning to the university system, due to a halted publication record and an underappreciation for these inter-sectorial experiences. This is ill-fated because STEM fields usually benefit from collaboration with other sectors to develop start-ups (e.g., in biotechnology and medicine). Therefore, institutions responsible for knowledge production need to be more flexible to accommodate inter-sectorial and international experiences and value them in their evaluation processes for career advancement.

A long-term commitment to sustaining a highly diverse talent pool is the cornerstone of robust economic and social policies, thus inclusion of diverse talent must become a strategic priority in Canada. In a world that is increasingly interrelated and competes for the same global talent pool, this is the only way forward for Canada to support its competitiveness in a global market.

Catarina Ferreira is a guest scientist with the UFZ-Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research in Germany, and the department of biology at Trent University. Cornelya Klütsch is a postdoctoral fellow and instructor, also in the department of biology at Trent University.

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  1. Dean C. / July 19, 2018 at 10:52

    PhD holders are clearly having problems finding permanent employment in Canada, yet our top priority should be bringing in new early-career researchers into the country? Under the guise of diversity?

    How does this make sense in anyway?

  2. Jerome / July 19, 2018 at 13:48

    “…with the aggravating circumstance that many positions (e.g., for the provincial and federal governments) prioritize Canadian citizens and permanent-resident holders.”

    Of course taxpayer-funded federal and provincial government positions should be given to Canadian citizens! It is absurd to suggest that non-Canadians should hold such positions for a variety of reasons. We have to favour our current citizens first and foremost, otherwise what is the point of subsidizing education and training?

    People complain about the brain drain and articles like this make it clear why some people feel they have to go to the U.S. or abroad for employment in their respective fields. We have excellent talent in Canada and we should focus on these people securing employment that will benefit themselves, their families, and our society.

  3. Bob / July 23, 2018 at 16:03

    I completely agree with Dean and Bob here.

    If I may also add, the Canadian government federally funds training programs for our students/trainees to train abroad. If there is no impetus for repatriation, why are we spending tax dollars on these programs? What are we training people to do? If there’s a particular expertise that is beneficial to Canada, we should send students/trainees to train in those disciplines.

    Lastly, there was an article series here that dealt with the topic regarding the difficulties of repatriating Canadian academics. I know that many here have found employment internationally. However, my point is that for any Canadian to think that other countries aren’t as protective of their trainees is preposterous. In my experience, I think Canada has the worse repatriation system in the world. I would challenge the authors of this article to present statistics regarding how other countries/regions (such as the US and Europe) attract international talent. In other words, on a percentage basis, how much Canadian talent do those places hire?

  4. Choudhary Ahmed / August 8, 2018 at 00:15

    Although the article is very interesting, it lacks in the understanding the fact that there are already many highly educated and experience people immigrated to Canada and they are struggling to land their feet into the professions including biological sciences research. I personally know many people including myself who are not only highly educated and experienced but also have motivation, drive and enthusiasm to contribute to the Canadian biological sciences research but unable to get the role.
    So instead of advocating the policy makers and KOLs to help in Immigration of more skilled people, my recommendation is to first deal with already available pool of highly skilled immigrants and give them the chance to take part in helping the biotech companies and than attract the outside world.
    Thank you
    Choudhary Shoaib Ahmed

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