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Ready to Go Expat?

Britain, Canada, France and Germany all launch funding programs to recruit foreign researchers. Will they succeed in capitalizing on perceptions of the U.S. as a less attractive place for research?

July 26, 2017
 

Fancy moving abroad? A host of new initiatives by national governments -- in Britain, Canada, France and most recently Germany -- seek to lure foreign researchers to their shores with pots of money earmarked for international recruitment.

Britain has allocated 100 million pounds (about $130 million) to a new fund, called the Rutherford Fund, to attract foreign researchers for stays ranging from anywhere from a few months to 10 years. In an initiative tied to the celebration of the country’s sesquicentennial, Canada has budgeted 117.6 million Canadian dollars (about $94 million) in one-time funding to attract 15 to 35 internationally based researchers to take up Canada 150 Research Chairs at the country's universities. Both the British and Canadian programs are open to researchers from a variety of fields, including the natural sciences and engineering, the health sciences, social sciences and the humanities.

France, meanwhile, is providing 60 million euros in funding (about $48 million) -- half from the government and half from matching funds provided by universities and scientific institutions -- specifically to recruit international climate scientists. The initiative from French President Emmanuel Macron is cheekily called “Make Our Planet Great Again,” in a clear jab at President Trump, who favored the campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” and has announced plans to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement.

Germany recently announced that it would join the French initiative and said details of its own call for applications for fellowships would be published soon.

“These countries are looking to take advantage of what’s going on in the U.S.,” said Al Teich, a research professor of science, technology and international affairs at George Washington University. “They’re trying to attract scientists at a time when I think they see an opportunity because the U.S. has become a less attractive place -- or they believe the U.S. has become a less attractive place.”

It remains to be seen what caliber of talent countries are able to attract with these funding schemes. The Canadian government said in a press release it wants to "leverage Canada’s strengths as a destination of choice for the best and brightest world-leading scholars and researchers." The money for the Canada 150 Research Chairs program comes from the existing Canada Excellence Research Chairs program, which awards grants to academics to start research programs at Canadian universities.

"I think it’s a good initiative, especially because we have a lot of researchers from the States who are trying to apply to Canadian universities now," said Maryse Lassonde, the president of the Royal Society of Canada: The Academies of Arts, Humanities and Sciences of Canada and scientific director of the Quebec Research Agency for Nature and Technology. "It’s a good way to get them and open the door."

“This is Canada’s moment -- a time to strengthen research and innovation that impacts people’s lives -- and the Canada 150 Chairs program is an effective way to do just that,” Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, said in a June press release. “It’s an important step toward making Canada the destination of choice for top talent around the world.”

Not everyone is a fan of the initiative, however.

Some academics have taken to Twitter to express frustration at a funding program that by its very design excludes most Canadians. The Canada 150 Research Chairs are open to expatriate Canadians, but researchers who already work at Canadian institutions are not eligible to apply.

In addition to questioning the exclusion of most resident Canadians, some also questioned the size of the grants, which are set at one of two award levels, 350,000 Canadian dollars (about $279,000) and 1 million Canadian dollars (about $797,000) per year. The government funding is for seven years, but the application process for the chairs requires Canadian host universities to put forward a plan for how they would retain the researchers after that point.

In a series of tweets, Jason Ellis, an assistant professor of educational studies at the University of British Columbia, expressed his disappointment about the program design in that it "excludes excellent candidates who work at Canadian universities, and it devalues both our institutions and their professors and graduates."

"The program not only overlooks Canadian academics fortunate enough to be employed in a full-time, tenure-track position, like I am, but … also passes over a large talent pool of Canadian-trained, Canadian-resident young academics who are struggling to find these sorts of … positions on a very difficult job market," Ellis said on Twitter.

"Finally, the program allocates large sums of money to single individuals -- sometimes amounts from approximately three to nine times … the typical academic salary for positions at a similar rank. By concentrating over 100 million [Canadian] dollars in the hands of a much smaller … number of scholars than was necessary, who will be recruited from outside the country, your government has passed up a chance to … use those funds to support a much larger number of young, Canadian-trained and Canadian-resident unemployed academics whose scholarly … potential is at this very moment enormously underutilized."

“I would have liked and I would still like for the government to take a broader and a more long-term view of 'how do we actually build up our existing programs in Canada,'" said Lucia M. Lorenzi, a postdoctoral fellow in English and cultural studies at McMaster University who also criticized the program on Twitter. "Yes, we might have 25 or 30 research chairs coming to universities across the country, but that can be unevenly distributed, and it’s not necessarily fixing the underlying problems."

Some have also questioned the tight deadlines for the program. The Canadian government launched the call for applications June 21, universities must submit preliminary applications for the candidates they're interested in hiring under the program by Aug. 18 and full applications are due Sept. 15. Job postings for the chairs from individual universities set varied deadlines for candidates, with some coming up this week or already past (others have set an early August deadline).

"The timelines are concerning in the sense that it’s hard to know whether or not we will be able to attract the best and brightest candidates simply because the universities are under tremendous pressure to move quickly," said Glen Jones, a professor of higher education at the University of Toronto. At the same time, he said, "I suspect the universities will do everything they can to make the best possible use of the program."

Christopher Walters, the director of communications for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, one of the agencies administering the initiative, said that the program is "designed to meet the needs of Canadian universities which have reported significant instances of researchers contacting them about opportunities in Canada" and that "we have every confidence that institutions are willing and able to recruit top talent for this one-time opportunity and we are encouraged at the level of interest expressed so far." Selected candidates will have up to 12 months to take up their positions.

"Clearly, one of the motivating factors is the notion that both following Brexit and the Trump presidency, there is a recognition that people may be more open to moving to other countries, and that has shaken up the international academic labor market a little bit," Jones said.​

In Britain, government officials framed the new Rutherford Fund as a way to send a message that Britain remains open to international scholars despite the country's plans to exit the European Union. "The Rutherford Fund will send a strong signal that, even as we leave the European Union, we are open to the world and will reinforce our ambition of making the U.K. the go-to country for innovation and discovery," Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, said as part of remarks at a launch event earlier this month.

Half the £100 million allocated for the Rutherford Fund comes from existing monies dedicated to the Newton Fund, which supports science and innovation programs in service of economic development, and the other half comes from a new National Productivity Investment Fund announced last fall. The government expects to be able to fund up to 600 additional international researchers by expanding existing programs offered by the Academy of Medical Sciences and Research Councils UK, the British Academy, the British Council, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Royal Society.

James Wilsdon, a professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, described the Rutherford Fund as a "welcome addition" of funding that complements existing mobility programs, including programs funded by the European Union. But he stressed that the Rutherford Fund was "announced in the context of Brexit and all the concerns across the U.K. research community about the negative effects of Brexit, in terms of encouraging people who are here already to leave and discouraging people who haven’t come here from doing so" -- either because of perceptions of Britain as being a more inward-looking place or because of changes to immigration and visa controls that could newly limit the ability of academics from the E.U. to live and work in the U.K. An estimated 15 percent of academics at U.K. universities come from other E.U. countries.

"We’re not just changing the funding schemes, we’re changing the fundamental basis on which people can enter and leave the country, and if you do that, the fundamental rules are more important than the fine detail of a funding scheme," Wilsdon said. "That’s the basis on which people decide where to live, where to work and where to raise a family."

"That's why for me, at least, the champagne stays on ice until we understand far more about the detail of the scheme and about the visa and migration rule context in which people will move in and out of the U.K. after Brexit," he said of the Rutherford Fund. "Until we know the answer to those things, new schemes are welcome, but they don’t solve the fundamental problem, which is more to do with those rules."

France, meanwhile, is attempting to position itself as a magnet for climate researchers. In launching the "Make Our Planet Great Again" initiative, the government explicitly cited Trump's climate policies as the motivation. "Following the decision of the United States to withdraw from the Paris agreement, the president of the republic called on researchers and teachers, entrepreneurs, associations and NGOs, students and the whole of civil society to mobilize and join France to lead the fight against global warming," a government press release said (in translation from French). The initiative, promoted on an English-language website, offers four-year grants of up to €1 million (about $1.2 million) for junior researchers and €1.5 million (about $1.7 million) for senior researchers.

"Personally I think it is not the best way to spend €60 million," said Olivier Berné, a research scientist in astronomy at the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology, in Toulouse, and one of the organizers of France's March for Science. "There are a number of difficulties in the French research system, in higher education, and, in particular, a number of universities in France are in a financial crisis. Maybe it’s not the best thing to spend €60 million and just give it to 40 or 50 people.”

“I think honestly this project is more about communication and political strategy, rather than a real scientific project," Berné said.

The French government recently proposed €331 million (about $386 million) in cuts to its higher education and research budget. In an article about the "Make Our Planet Great Again" initiative and the budget cuts, Nature quoted a biologist at the University of Montpellier and founder of the political advocacy group Sciences en Marche, Patrick Lemaire, as saying that the proposed cuts "should make any foreign scientist wonder about the generous invitation of President Macron to relocate to France … The cuts are a warning that the scientific environment they would find in France may be very far from the one they are promised."

But Nature also quoted Sacha Wunsch-Vincent, an economist at the World Intellectual Property Organization, saying that the initiative represents "a seismic shift in the branding of France" as a destination for research and innovation. The Nature article also quoted one American researcher who is applying, and who cites the lack of such funding opportunities in the U.S.

More than 1,000 scientists have inquired on the "Make Our Planet Great Again" website, according to Stéphane Blanc, a scientific delegate at France's National Center for Scientific Research (the CNRS, per the acronym for its name in French). As of July 20, Blanc said, the CNRS had invited more than 150 scientists who meet the basic eligibility criteria to apply for long-term stays. French language ability is not a requirement for the funding -- Blanc said most French scientists speak English, the international language of science -- and English-only speakers are welcome to apply.

“I would say that the majority [of applicants], around 50 percent, are from the States, but those numbers are changing every day; we have people from a lot of different countries that are applying," Blanc said. As with the Canadian program, the timeline for the French initiative is short: Blanc said the target date for selection of candidates is in November.

Teich, the research professor at George Washington University, said he is not aware of any research on the effectiveness of programs like these, though he noted that these programs "may be an effective way of letting the scientific world know that there are opportunities in these countries."

"What I can’t say is how well these actually work, because there are a lot of things that go into a researcher’s decision to move to a different country besides these large grants," Teich said. "That makes it more attractive, obviously, but they’ve got to find their research partners, institutions that they’re comfortable working in, places that their families might want to live. There are a whole lot of other things that go into making a decision to immigrate."

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