“Brain drain” looms of Canada’s best and brightest talent: Ottawa Science Policy Network study

Mark Lowey
July 10, 2024

A significant “brain drain” of Canada’s brightest university graduates appears likely without targeted policies to stem the talent flow, according to a study by the Ottawa Science Policy Network at the University of Ottawa.

Nearly two-thirds of current graduate students surveyed for the study said they’re “likely” or “very likely” to move abroad upon completion of their degree, while less than half of recent graduates intended to remain in Canada (the others had either already left or intended to do so).

Finances/salaries and the availability of jobs/opportunities were the biggest drivers for grad students and graduates planning to leave or who’ve already left Canada, the survey found. Those who planned to remain in the country placed a higher importance on friends/family and significant others.

“The majority of current graduate student respondents are considering leaving Canada following the completion of their degree,” said Mercedes Rose (photo at left), a PhD student and co-president of the student-led Ottawa Science Policy Network.

While the increased funding for gradate scholarship and postdoctoral fellowships allocated in Budget 2024 is “a great first step, certainly more work needs to be done to continue to push for better funding to retain that top talent within our country,” Rose said during an online event to present the survey’s results.

Budget 2024 allocated $1.5 billion over five years to the three federal granting agencies, plus $825 million to increase graduate scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships to inflation-adjusted levels. The report last year by the government’s Advisory Panel on the Federal Research Support System recommended increasing the scholarships and fellowships to “internationally competitive levels.”

Canada has for many years allowed research funding and other structures that support Canada’s post-secondary talent pool to erode, said Michael Rowell (photo at right), director of policy at the U15 group of research-intensive universities.

“Lack of prioritization and increasing competition over limited resources have pushed many [graduates] to look for opportunities elsewhere, and have caused students to not continue their education,” he said during the online event.

“We’re now experiencing the visible beginnings of the brain drain that, if left unaddressed, will become detrimental to Canada’s future social and economic prosperity.”

Federal funding for science and technology has historically accounted for around 4.5 percent of government expenditures, Rowell noted. This funding decreased to less than 3.5 percent of Ottawa’s spending in 2023-2024.

Stagnant funding for investigator-led research in the 2022 and 2023 federal budgets effectively amounted to an 18-percent reduction when factoring in inflation, Rowell said. “This has severely impacted the crucial support that flows indirectly to students.”

Despite increases in graduate student enrolments at the masters and doctoral levels – of 56 percent and 57 percent, respectively – the number of scholarships offered at these levels as well as the awards’ dollar value have remained relatively stagnant for almost two decades, Rowell said.

“Award values were lagging behind the 54-percent rise inflation since their inception,” he said. “Yet little to nothing has been done, even as our peers [comparator countries] enhanced support to attract the world’s best.”

In 2019 Canada ranked as the 5th most highly sought after destination in the OECD’s talent attractiveness index, he said. By 2023, Canada had fallen to 10th place, “with prospects of us sliding further down the rankings as other countries continue to make outsized commitments and we continue to lag behind.”

Canada is perceived to be a well-educated country. But in reality, in 2022 Canada ranked 28th among OECD economies in the proportion of individuals with advanced degrees at the masters and doctoral levels, Rowell said.

The significant shortfall in advanced degrees-holders not only highlights the talent gap, but directly impacts the opportunities for Canadian economic and social prosperity, he said. “The scarcity of highly qualified individuals is a major barrier to innovation across all sectors in the Canadian economy.”

Other countries offer more opportunities and jobs for Canadian graduates

In 2021-2022, there were about 2.2 million enrolments across Canadian post-secondary institutions, including 1.4 million university students.

This included about 280,000 graduate students, many of whom were supported, developed, cultivated and came through Canada’s research enterprise, Rowell said.

The three federal research granting agencies support the development of more than 75,000 graduate students every year – one-third of Canada’s graduate student population.

The Ottawa Science Policy Network’s survey received 411 responses from current graduate students and 171 responses from recent (within the last 10 years) graduates. The findings included:

  • 64 per cent of current graduate students reported they are “likely” or “very likely” to leave Canada upon the conclusion of their degree.
  • 50 percent of recent graduates have already left Canada or are planning to leave Canada shortly.
  • Available opportunities/jobs was ranked the most important factor for leaving Canada.
  • The majority of graduates who left Canada are pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship (46 percent) or are in a faculty/teaching position (26 percent), whereas 23 percent entered the workforce.
  • Graduates who remain in Canada are more likely to enter the workforce (54 per cent of those who intend to stay in Canada and 46 percent of those who intend to leave).
  • Graduates who remain in Canada are less likely to pursue postdoctoral scholarships (26 percent of those who intend to stay in Canada and 38 percent of those who intend to leave), and also less likely to pursue facility/teaching positions (14 percent of those who intend to stay and four per cent of those who intend to leave).
  • Career-oriented factors – such as finance/salary, infrastructure/facilities, available opportunities/jobs, and prestige of organization – tended to be more important for those likely to leave Canada.
  • Personal factors – such as family/friends, significant others, health care – tended to be more important for those more unlikely to leave Canada.
  • Current graduate students who are struggling financially are more likely to consider leaving Canada, with 80 percent reporting they’re likely to leave.
  • Graduate students in a more comfortable financial situation were less likely (about 55 per cent) to leave Canada.
  • Graduates who had already left Canada had the highest salary value on average, about $113,000.
  • Graduates who remain in Canada but planned to leave had the lowest salary value on average, about $67,000. “This suggests higher salary levels as a major factor in brain drain, as it’s likely that recent graduates earning lower salaries in Canada are interested in pursuing positions abroad due to the higher earning potential and more opportunities.”
  • 71 percent of international students were more likely to consider leaving Canada, compared with 62 percent of domestic students.
  • The most important factors for international students were: prestige; infrastructure/facilities; salaries; and available opportunity/jobs.
  • The most important factors for domestic students were: family/friends; significant others.

PhD students and post-docs can earn higher salaries elsewhere

Job availability is top of mind for graduates, Rose noted. “Available job opportunities and finances are the key factors driving students to leave Canada.”

A typical PhD salary in the U.S. can range from Cdn$52,800 to Cdn$65,500, compared with  Cdn$21,000 in Canada.

Similarly, postdoc salaries in the U.S. can range from Cdn$70,000 to Cdn$85,000, surpassing the Cdn$45,000 typically offered in Canada (prior to the postdoc fellowship funding increase in federal budget 2024).

There is a shortage of available academic positions in Canada, compared with the number of graduates the country produces.

However, Rowell pointed out that many graduates want to stay in science and research, but not necessary in academia.. “It’s a concern that there isn’t a research-intensive job for them in Canada.”

In Ontario, there has been a lack of investment in universities and colleges for several years, said Stephen Holland, a PhD student at uOttawa and an executive of the Ottawa Science Policy Network.

Despite the federal government’s recognition [in Budget 2024] of past insufficient support for these researchers, the issue continues to be ignored at the provincial level, Holland and PhD student Thomas Bailey, also an executive of the Ottawa Science Policy Network, wrote in a recent commentary in the Ottawa Citizen.

 “As the province with the most graduate students in Canada, Ontario plays a dominant role in the national research ecosystem. But it has not increased investment in post-graduate training since the early 2000s,” they said.

Ontario’s graduate student scholarships have a value of $15,0000 per year (with only $10,000 coming from the province) and students must re-apply every academic year, they noted. Currently, 3,500 of these scholarships are awarded annually, supporting fewer than one in 20 graduate students.

“These numbers have not changed in nearly 10 years (and in fact have fallen since 2012) despite an increase in graduate enrolment by more than 30 per cent, Holland and Bailey said.

The average tuition for a graduate student is more than $7,500. So without any other funding source, an Ontario scholarship leaves the student with less than $7,500 to pay rent, utilities and groceries for the year – “clearly unrealistic,” they said. “For graduate students conducting full-time research, having another job is simply not a viable option.”

Postdocs in Canada face bleak financial situation

The financial situation for postdoctoral researchers in Canada is similarly bleak, according to the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars’ 2020 Canadian National Postdoc Survey. This study found that:

  • While the national median postdoc salary in Canada in 2020 amounted to $52,500 (before tax), 25 percent of postdocs made less than $45,000 (before tax). Postdocs reported expenses to range from $27,000 to $39,000 per year, “suggesting that many postdocs struggle on their current salaries to afford the cost of living and to support their dependents.”
  • Although the median gross annual postdoctoral income (GAPI) in Canada has increased significantly over time, when adjusted for inflation, the increase in median income only translated to $312 – or $2,742 since 2009. In contrast, the median GAPI for postdocs working abroad has increased by $20,000 if adjusted for inflation since 2013, and by $17,000 since 2016.
  • Salary and opportunities were the primary factors in postdocs’ decision-making on whether to remain in Canada or to move elsewhere. “Increasing postdoc salaries will therefore play a significant role in retaining talent in Canada.”
  • Mental health remains a severe challenge for postdocs, with 79 per cent of postdocs reporting severe mental health challenges in 2020 (predating the COVID-19 pandemic).

The Ottawa Science Policy Network, in a separate study of financial challenges faced by graduate students in Canada, also found that grad students are struggling financially.

Eighty-six percent of survey respondents in the study (published in the journal Biochemistry and Cell Biology) indicated feeling stress or anxiety over their finances at some point during their studies. Forty-three percent of respondents indicated that they were either struggling and often do not have enough to make ends meet, or have to make sacrifices to pay for necessities.

Thirty-one percent of graduate students have considered leaving their studies at some point solely due to finances. International students, who pay much more in tuition than domestic students, were twice as likely to be financially “struggling.”

Senator Stan Kutchner, an independent senator from Nova Scotia, told the Ottawa Science Policy Network event that he has been pushing the federal government for several years to both double the number of graduate student scholarships offered through the Tri-council funding agencies, and also double the dollar value of each scholarship.

Canada also needs a national science policy to guide how the government promotes scientific research, he said. “We are falling way behind our international competitors and we are thus putting the future health and wealth of our nation at risk.”

When graduates leave Canada, they leave permanently, Kutchner said. “So we have a huge loss of intellectual and human capital. And what Canada needs to be doing is building intellectual and human capital.”

The Ottawa Science Policy Network’s most recent study found that many respondents were open to the idea of returning to Canada. This suggests that Canada’s lack of investment in R&D may be causing many of these people to look elsewhere for opportunities, according to the study.

The study says there needs to be a multifaceted approach, involving increased funding for R&D, fostering collaboration between diverse sectors, and promoting a seamless transition from academia to the workforce.

“The solution lies in conducive policy changes that cultivate an environment where talented graduates find encouragement to anchor themselves within the Canadian landscape,” the study says.

“We have allowed this brain drain to happen, particularly among our research talent, by creating an environment where scholarships, research and facilities were left unfunded,” said Rowell from U15.

Meantime, countries like the U.S. and those in western Europe have significantly invested in higher education and research through grants and scholarships, he said. These countries have made outsized commitments to underpin industrial development with their scientific enterprise, “recognizing the fundamental role that it plays in an innovative productive economy, he said.

Even with Budget 2024’s increased funding, he added, “We will continue to face the significant challenge of brain drain as other countries look to Canadian talent – coveted as some of the best and brightest in the world – to satisfy their increasingly demanding skills need.”

“We have to stop settling for being middle of the pack,” Rowell said. “Canada needs ambition, it needs the best and brightest to realize its full potential.”


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