Canada - More than Maple Syrup and Ice Hockey

Career strategies for young European scientists
by Ralf Schreck, Labtimes 07/2012

Skiing in Whistler, trout fishing in Saskatchewan or just a stroll through Distillery District in Toronto? Canada has much to offer – a rich history, stunning nature and cultural diversity. For its close to world-class science it is about time to set the course for the future.

Photo: Fotolia/photographer2222

Canada is quite well-positioned in global scientific rankings. Three entries among the 50 world-leading universities are not that bad. However, in the shadow of its dominant neighbour, the USA, it is no top pick for researchers from abroad. Canada’s own talents are on the move and fighting brain drain remains a continuous challenge. Budget cuts do not only target renowned large-scale projects including the Canadian Arctic Research Station PEARL, the Experimental Lakes Area ELA or the satellite system Constellation. A couple of fellowship programmes open to international scientists have been suspended, too. In addition, research funds are diverted from pure basic to more applied research and business-driven research gains momentum. Here, Lab Times will provide some insights into Canada’s efforts to improve its competitiveness. Moreover, a couple of Canadian funding programmes will be introduced that may boost your career.

Bits and pieces

Canada, with its capital Ottawa, is the second-largest country after Russia. An area spanning ten million km2 accommodates about 35 million people. Toronto is the largest Canadian municipality with a population of more than 2.6 million, followed by Montreal and Calgary. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Report enters Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary in the list of the world’s five most liveable cities. Canada is a federal state with ten provinces and three territories. Provinces have a degree of autonomy and are, for example, in charge of health, education and, partially, also research. Federal responsibilities are, for example, security, international relations and trade. Canada is a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state. The Dominion Canada gained initial autonomy in 1867 and full independence from the United Kingdom in 1982. The value of the Canadian Dollar currently equals the US Dollar.

As a member of the G8 forum of largest economies, Canada has mastered the financial crisis comparatively well. Private consumption, employment rates and exports are on the rise again. A balanced state budget should be reached within the next three to four years. Spending cuts across all areas do not spare education and research. In the latest OECD survey on Canada’s economy, it was recommended to further boost innovation and improve the human capital in order to sustain the current living standard. It was also suggested that Canada should focus now on the development of forward-looking areas, since it has been occupied too long with the exploitation of its rich natural resources. Tertiary education was praised in the report for its high attainment rates. But in comparison to other countries, a strong focus on the college sector was noted, which may not be able to satisfy the needs for a highly skilled workforce in future. Internationalisation efforts starting with the recruitment of more students from abroad should also be driven forth. In other global assessments such as the Global Competitiveness Index 2012/13 by the World Economic Forum Canada has lost some ground: it slipped to rank 14 and its innovation capacity, the governmental support for innovation as well as company R&D spending were rated as unsatisfactory.

Gross domestic expenditures on research and development (R&D) in Canada amounted to roughly $30 billion in 2011. This reflects about 1.8% of its gross domestic product, which is below the OECD average of 2.24%. With respect to performance and funding the business sector was the main player. About 53% of all expenditures are made at the business sector, followed by the higher education sector with 38% and the Governmental sector with roughly 10%. Research Infosource Inc. is providing a compilation of corporate R&D spenders in Canada, which is headed by Communications/Telecom Equipment, Pharma/Biotech and Telecom Services. More than 20 companies spent over $100 million and two companies, Research in Motion Limited and Bombardier Inc., even more than $1 bn on R&D last year. Apotex, the leading Canadian producer of generic drugs is the top R&D spender in the pharma sector. More than 40 Networks of Centers of Excellence, Networks of Excellence for Commercialization and Research as well as business-led Networks of Centers of Excellence catalyse and partially fund research partnerships between academia, industry, government and not-for-profit organisations.

A hidden champion?

Canada seems to live a more introspective life in the scientific community. Or are you aware of a pivotal invention beyond insulin attributed to a Canadian or even Nobel laureate from Canada? This might be due to the preponderant role of the US in North America. Well, peanut butter, Wonderbra, paint rollers, walkie-talkies or the first electric wheelchair for quadriplegics originated in Canada. UK-born Alexander Graham Bell, who is credited for the first telephone, had multiple citizenships. The first external heart pacemaker was constructed by Jack Hopps from the University of Toronto in the fifties, Archie, the first Internet search engine, was developed by two students from Montreal two decades ago and in September of this year, the 200 millionth BlackBerry smartphone was shipped by Research in Motion, a Canadian company headquartered in Waterloo, Ontario.

With respect to the approximately 20 Canadian Nobel laureates, it is noteworthy that many had already left Canada quite early in their careers. For example, the geneticist Jack Szostak, who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for work on chromosomal recombination and telomere function, turned his back on Montreal after his undergraduate studies. The same holds true for the late Ralph Steinman, who said goodbye to Canada in order to pursue a PhD at Harvard, and for Sidney Altman, who preferred to study physics at the MIT and later received the Nobel Prize together with Tom Cech for describing the catalytic properties of RNA. Other laureates are less well-known, such as the British-born and ZymoGenetics co-founder Michael Smith (site-directed mutagenesis), David Hubel (information processing in the visual system), Charles Huggins (anticancer hormone therapy) or Frederick Banting (therapeutic use of insulin).

Unlocking Canada’s potential

However, Canada unleashes an unexpected solid, sometimes even excellent performance, when it comes to bean counting. With less than five per mille of the world’s population it puts out almost 5% of most-frequently cited papers. The SCImago Country and Journal Rank portal is listing Canada among the world leaders in several categories. For example, it is seventh with respect to citable documents published between 1996 and 2010. If countries with more than 100,000 publications are considered, Canada is on rank 6 with respect to citations and on rank 5 of the h-index scale, which is a measure for productivity and impact. If one is rummaging through the 27 subject areas of the ranking and again the h-index is scored, no weak spot is detected. Noteworthy: in seven areas including environmental sciences, medicine and veterinary, Canada is actually listed among the three top countries. If you are interested in more details on Canada’s proficiencies and shortcomings the recently published 200-page report “The State of Science and Technology in Canada” is a recommendable read.

The valid Canadian science and technology strategy is called “Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage” and was released in 2007. The strategy has three major objectives: support the knowledge base by applying international standards of research excellence, become an attractive location for worldwide research talent and strengthen R&D in the business sector. Based on these objectives, three broad research policy areas: “Knowledge Advantage”, “People Advantage” and “Entrepreneurial Advantage” have been introduced and funding programmes installed or reinforced accordingly. Four national research priority areas have been defined: health and related life sciences and technologies, natural resources and energy, environmental sciences and technologies as well as information and communication technologies.

Funding public sector research

With this multi-annual strategy, Canada’s Government presets the overall research policy at the federal level. Its provinces implement this and additional research policies, and tailor their own funding programmes. There is no single federal ministry in charge for education, science and innovation. Several ministries take care of research within their sphere of competence. They have formed so-called Science-Based Departments and Agencies (SBDA), which act as more or less independent funding and/or research performing bodies and have to apply to the Treasury Board to run their external funding programmes and their own 120 research labs. With about twenty agencies and departments in charge at the federal level and several bodies within the provinces, the science funding system of Canada is quite fragmented; subsequently, duplicated and un-coordinated efforts do exist. Government directories of scientists and research centres and additional details on the Canadian science system are available via its official web portal at www.science.gc.ca.

There are four major SBDAs in support of research and research infrastructure in the public domain: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHR) and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI). The first two have an annual budget of about $1 bn each, whereas SSHR and CFI have $700 and $560 million, respectively, at their disposal. As the Canadian Foundation for Innovation is funding primarily research infrastructure at universities, colleges, research hospitals and non-profit research institutions, the other three SDBAs provide a whole bunch of competitive funding measures, including programmes for individual and team research projects, for research training, mobility and career development, for strategic cross-disciplinary research initiatives as well as for technology transfer and public/private collaborations.

Photo: Fotolia/JJAVA

CIHR funds health research in Canada and consists of 13 virtual institutes, each of which addresses a crucial area of health research such as Aging, Cancer Research or Genetics. Each institute spans the whole spectrum of research from basic biomedical to clinical research but also research in additional health-related areas. Each institute is headed by a scientific director and is supported by an Institute Advisory Board. Topic-specific Peer Review Committees evaluate the applications made to the CIHR. Overall, the CIHR is providing support to more than 14,000 health researchers and trainees at universities, teaching hospitals and research centres across Canada each year. Funding opportunities may be accessed via the “Find Funding” link on the CIHR’s web portal.

NSERC is funding Canada’s research in Natural Science and Engineering along the themes People, Discovery and Innovation. People are promoted by supporting research training of some 30,000 university students and postdoctoral fellows, discovery is facilitated by funding the research of more than 12,000 university professors and innovation is encouraged by engaging about 2,000 companies in academic-industry partnership projects. In the 2012 competition the following awards were granted: 2,200 new Discovery grants, 840 scholarships at Master’s and 660 scholarships at doctoral level as well as 100 postdoc fellowships. The CIHR and NSERC have both been criticised by scientists for declining success rates of funding applications in recent years.

Genome Canada

As part of the federal research strategy and as inter-ministerial and cross-SBDA effort, Genome Canada (www.genomecanada.ca) was established as a not-for-profit organisation in the year 2000. It was given a mandate by the Government to develop and implement large-scale genomics projects and technology platforms, whereby genomics is defined as the study of genes and their functions, incorporating genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, bioinformatics and other related fields. Research areas include health, agriculture, environment, forestry, fisheries and new technology development. Six autonomous regional Genome Centres have been installed: Genome British Columbia, Genome Alberta, Genome Prairie, Ontario Genomics Institute, Genome Québec and Genome Atlantic. Each Centre regularly publishes calls for research, training and commercialisation. The Centres, in collaboration with Genome Canada, have raised more than $2 billion over the last decade, about half from the Government and the other half from co-funders including provincial, academic, private sector or international sources partners. Whereas the Government supported Genome Canada with up to $160 million a year in the past, the latest budget just covered a $60 million two-year programme in Health Sciences. If you are interested in “-omics” research, Genome Canada is a good starting point to learn about your opportunities.

Canadian Higher Education

Universities are the main drivers of Canadian research, which is worth more than $11 billion a year and accounts for more than a third of the gross domestic expenditure for research and development. Roughly 80% is spent on Natural Sciences and Engineering; the remainder goes on Social Sciences and Humanities. The provinces Quebec and Ontario have the highest concentration of universities, research hospitals and clinics, thus accounting for almost two-thirds of R&D spending in the higher education sector. Major players in higher education are represented by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC). AUCC membership, along with the permission of a province to grant degrees, is used as accreditation.

Canadian higher education as well as career advancement in academia has many similarities with the US system. PhD researcher, postdoc, assistant professor and associate professor are common stages before becoming a full professor. Assistant professors have no tenure but more than half of them are promoted to a tenured associate professor position within six years. Promotion to full professor usually takes another five years. About 1.2 million students are enrolled in Canadian degree programmes. The number of international students is estimated to be above 100,000. They represent about 8% of undergraduate students and a fifth at the graduate level. China accounts for one-third of international students and the US and France together make up another third. Study places snatched away by international students have become an issue of public discussion. Critics are shut up by the assertion that these students have an economic impact close to $6.5 billion. According to OECD Economic Surveys 2012, Canada has a low share of PhDs by international standards. However, with more than 50% of doctoral titles awarded in science and engineering, it was placed fourth highest among 38 selected countries. Canada has English and French language institutions. Depending on where you study or look for employment, knowledge of French will be an additional requirement.

Three Canadian universities regularly emerge in university rankings and spearhead Canada’s research and innovation system. In the Times Higher Education (THE) as well as in the QS World University Ranking the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and McGill University of Montreal are represented among the top 50 universities either as a whole institution but also if subject areas are covered. In the QS Ranking, the University of Toronto is the primary Canadian university in Physics (world rank 27), in Engineering and Technology (22) and in Arts and Humanities (17), whereas University of British Columbia leads in Life Sciences (20) and Social Sciences (19). There are even five Canadian universities listed in the top 50 list Clinical/Preclinical/Health of the THE Ranking, where the three above-mentioned institutions are joined by the McMaster University of Hamilton and the University of Montreal.

Ready to become a Canadian PhD?

Earning a doctoral title in Canada requires two initial years of coursework including exams. Time to completion is usually between four and six years, sometimes even longer. Tuition fees for international PhD students are up to thrice the amount for domestic students. A tuition waiver is available at many universities and PhD students may receive an award covering part or all of the tuition fees for the first four to five years. Getting financial support beyond this period becomes difficult. Other sources of funding include teaching and research assistantships. A couple of fellowship programmes are in place, either open or earmarked for international PhD students.

The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship programme was introduced in 2008 with the objective of attracting world-class doctoral students in all fields. The fellowship pays $50,000 a year for three years and is available to both Canadian and international PhD students studying at Canadian universities. Applications are possible only by nomination through a Canadian University. In order to be nominated you need to achieve excellent grades, seek a first doctoral degree, have spent not more than 20 months as a doctoral student from the very start of the fellowship, which is usually in May of the following year, and committed to pursuing your doctoral title full-time. For your application you have to contact the university of your choice and first survive the internal competition, which is the major bottleneck. At the next level, you are competing with nominees from all Canadian institutions and the chances of success are slightly better than one to four. Five hundred new fellowships are granted per three-year period. About a quarter of the awardees is of international origin.

Additional scholarship programmes have been introduced in individual provinces. For example, the Ontario Trillium Scholarship provides 75 new fellowships per annum for international PhD students at universities in Ontario. Fellowships are worth $40,000 a year and renewable for up to four years. Applications are made by the faculty of your university. Other fellowships are restricted to PhD students from specific countries such as the Alberta Doctoral Awards for Chinese students, which offer $28,000 a year for three years and additional research funds on top.

Postdoc-ing Canada

To get access to a Canadian institution at the next career step, a postdoc fellowship either from international or domestic sources is often a precondition. A look into the more prestigious international fellowship programmes reveals that these are not often used to pay Canada a mere visit. For example, in the Human Frontier Science long-term fellowship programme there were three awards made in the period covering the years 2009 to 2011. The EMBO Fellows Network lists just 17 out of 1,435 users with Canada as host institution for a past or current long-term fellowship. Canadian fellowships are often limited to domestic postdocs. For example, the NSERC bi-annual Postdoc Fellowship Program with an annual fellowship rate of $40,000 and a success rate below 8% as well as the two-year Industrial R&D fellowships are available only to Canadian citizens and permanent residents. In contrast, the Visiting Fellowship to Canadian Government Laboratories Program makes a few of its fellowships available to international postdocs. However, the availability of the $47,234-worth fellowship depends on the budget of participating departments and agencies.

A notable exception is the Banting Postdoc Fellowship Program, which was launched in 2010. With an annual budget of $10 million, the programme claims to target the best postdoctoral talents, both nationally and internationally. The two-year fellowship pays $70,000 a year before taxes. Applicants from abroad must hold their fellowship at a Canadian institution, whereas Canadians or permanent citizens may spend their fellowship abroad. Applicants may not hold a faculty position and should not continue to work at the same institution, where they earned their doctoral title. Applications are done via the online application system ResearchNet. Evaluated is the research excellence of the applicant, the quality of his research proposal as well as the institutional commitment. The next call is expected for August 2013. One in ten out of the total 700 applications received funding in the last round and about one-third of awardees were of international origin including the US and Canadian expats.

Programme suspended

One example for a postdoc fellowship at the province level is the Ontario Postdoc Fellowship Program. The programme is open to international postdocs. It allows for two years to be spent at Ontarion institutions. Each fellow receives a minimum of $50,000 per year, which is contributed by the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation and the host institution. Applications in the areas of Ontario’s Innovation Agenda are encouraged: bio-economy and clean technologies, advanced health technologies, pharmaceutical research and manufacturing, and digital media and information and communication technologies. Fifty new fellowships on average have been granted in each of the past rounds. According to Karla Morris, a senior policy advisor at the granting ministry, the programme has been suspended in light of current fiscal challenges and it is not known whether and when it will be revived.

Additional opportunities exist via disease-oriented foundations and societies. These include the Savoy Foundation with a focus on epilepsy, the Canadian Diabetes Foundation, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation or the Canadian Hemophilia Society. Government of Canada Awards – Postdoc Research Fellowships are based on bilateral agreements with, for example, France, Germany or Italy but have not been announced for the next academic year. The one-year fellowship with a total value of $36,500 wants to attract recent doctoral graduates. About 50 new fellowships per year have been made available in the past. Moreover, it is also worth trawling through the web sites of individual universities to look for local or regional funding possibilities. For example, the University of Ottawa lists about 60 different agencies and foundations (www.grad.uottawa.ca). And of course, you might also be paid from the research grant of your future group leader. CAPS-ACSP, the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars, provides some details on all aspects of life as a postdoc in Canada (www.facebook.com/capsacsp).

Best-paid professors worldwide

Becoming one of the 42,000 full-time professors in Canada seems to pay off: they are the best-paid professors at public universities worldwide. The report “Paying the Professoriate – A Global Comparison of Compensation and Contracts” compared public university salaries in 28 countries by adjusting the dollar-value of salaries to the costs of living. Canada was on top with a monthly salary of about $7,200 for full professors. Second-best was Italy with $6,950, whereas South Africa with $6,530 took third place. The US, the UK and Germany ended up as fifth, seventh and tenth, respectively. At the tail-end were China ($720), Russia ($617) and Armenia ($538).

But good remuneration is not the sole criterion for choosing a particular location. Therefore, two governmental programmes to lure professors to Canada have been installed. One is the Canada Research Chairs Program (CRCP) with the objective to attract and retain the most promising talents (Tier 1 Chairs) as well as accomplished scientists (Tier 2 Chairs). About $300 million per year are earmarked to support 2,000 professorships. The number of Research Chairs that are allocated to institutions is calculated on the total amount of third-party funds obtained in the last three-year period.

In the 2010 round, the University of Toronto was the leading institution with 240 allocations. Institutions have to submit a research strategy and nominate candidates, who are evaluated by three reviewers. Tier 1 Chairs are appointed initially for seven years and may be renewed indefinitely. For each Tier 1 Chair, the university receives $200,000 annually. For each Tier 2 Chair the host institution receives $100,000 a year for a five-year period and the position is renewable only once. In addition, financial support to buy equipment is available from the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

About a quarter of Chair holders are recruited from outside Canada and about a tenth of recruits are expats. On average, half of all Chair holders are renewed for a second term. Whereas the nomination of external researchers is possible at any time, there is one annual deadline for domestic researchers. Regulations to facilitate the recruitment of non-Canadians have been improved in the past. CRCP was recently positively evaluated. However, it was also stressed that there is no full transparency at some institutions and that the implementation at the local level varies widely. Whereas at some places additional funds, in-kind support or reduction of teaching duties are provided, there are no further amenities at others.

Canada Excellence Research Chairs

The second programme to draw professors is the Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) programme, which awards world-renowned scientists up to $10 million for a seven-year period. The Government of Canada installed the CERC programme in 2008 to attract Canadian and international heavyweights to contribute to Canada’s competitiveness. In May 2010, the first 19 and all-male Canada Excellence Research Chairs were awarded in four priority research areas: health and related life sciences and technologies, environmental sciences and technologies, natural resources and energy as well as information and communications technologies. The funding of ten additional awards was announced in November 2011 and the selection process is ongoing. The highly competitive application process includes at stage one the competition among universities and at stage two the evaluation of nominated candidates by an international selection board. To sum up, for both Research Chairs, whether excellent or not, you are not able to apply directly by yourself but have to work close together with your future Canadian host institution.


Canada has its scientific strongholds and already decided to deploy its limited resources strategically to specific priority research areas. Personalised medicine, tissue engineering and nanotechnologies are just some fast growing areas, in which Canada is able to compete at the forefront. Competitive funding and fellowship opportunities of all kinds are in place at the federal and regional levels. The Early Researcher Award Program by the Ontario’s Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation, the Career Investigator Program by the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research in British Columbia and similar programmes foster the scientific talent on its way to independence. Canada’s commitment to internationalisation has been only half-hearted in the past. Though international cooperation and the recruitment of international scientists has been regarded as crucial, they were not always pursued with the necessary perseverance and not backed up by adequate financial resources. This might change in the near future.

The recently published report “International Education: A Key Driver of Canada’s Future Prosperity” commissioned by the Federal Government is considered to be Canada’s first comprehensive internationalisation strategy. It made several recommendations including to double the number of international students within the next decade and create a Council of International Education and Research providing policy advice. In addition, the prospect of provision of means for reinforced bilateral collaborations with a number of priority countries and the disentanglement of the Federal fellowship system, leading to 2,000 international graduate and 1,000 postdoc fellowships per year under a unified brand, fuel the hope for future improvements.

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