In a move to stem the exodus of researchers to the US, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien is "to provide exciting opportunities for Canadian researchers and to attract the best academic researchers in the world to Canadian universities" by creating 2,000 "21st Century Chairs of Research Excellence."

Until now, Chrétien has dismissed as "a myth" concerns that diminished funding was fueling a southward intellectual "brain drain." Only 0.2% of newly qualified PhDs went south in 1995, according to Statistics Canada. But a report by the Conference Board of Canada this summer, which surveyed more-established professionals and those whose short-term sojourns became permanent, indicates that US migration rose drastically from 17,000 in 1989 to 98,000 in 1997. Even Statistics Canada predicts that 250,000 Canadians between the ages of 20 and 34 will leave the country by 2001.

Those on the research front lines attest to a talent drain. "Of my last ten postdoctoral fellows, two are faculty in Canada, six are faculty in the USA, one is faculty in the UK and one has gone to Israel," says University of Guelph's Terry Beveridge, one of Canada's science stars who elucidated the mechanism of gram staining. The Conference Board's Charles Barrett says, "professionals...are leaving the country at a rate higher than their rate of entry into the Canadian labour force...which could jeopardize the pool of highly skilled [workforce]."

By 1990, funding shortfalls had fueled a 30% net migration loss of "star genetic researchers," according to the National Biotechnology Advisory Committee. Harry Mangalam, a molecular biologist, bioinformatician and CEO of T A C G Informatics of Irvine, California, to leave Canada a decade ago to begin PhD studies in the US. Although he applauds the current initiative, he says it will not prompt him to consider a return. "A real research resurrection is going to take a confluence of researchers, certainly, but also the facilities and infrastructure that will allow them to do what they need to do."

The funding slump has continued. Per capita funding for the Medical Research Council of Canada has declined from CAN$9.09 (US$5.80) in 1994–1995 to CAN$8.23 in 1997–1998. In contrast, per capita funding from the US National Institutes of Health increased from US$57.41 to an estimated US$66.64 in the same period.

Chrétien's 21st Century Chairs plan will commit CAN$180 million to 1,200 research chairs over three years. And a further 800 chairs will be created "as soon as possible thereafter," bringing the annual federal bill to CAN$300 million. Although details of this program are sketchy at present, 40% of the funds are slated for chairs in biomedical research. Promising young researchers will receive annual support of CAN$100,000 for five to seven years and for established scientists will receive CAN$200,000 for salaries and teaching replacements.