Saturday, July 29, 2017

Prof Poaching?

The Canada 150 program has been quite controversial, as it is yet another attempt by the Canadian government to concentrate resources in the academic world--heaps of money for a few folks.  Yet the timing makes a great deal of sense--try to attract smart people from the US and UK when their political systems are in disarray.  It does not mean a disregard for Canadians in Canada, but it does mean tradeoffs--spend dollars on who for what reason? 

I am a product of earlier efforts of this kind--the Canada Research Chairs program was an effort by the federal government to bypass the provinces (who own the universities) and bring back lost Canadians as well as foreigners.  My job at McGill was a CRC position--I had a title, a course release and some fungible funds.  So, I took a paycut to come to Canada.  While I didn't stay at McGill longer than the CRC term (the junior version was for five years, renewable once, so I stayed there ten years), I have stayed in Canada. I'd like to think it has worked out pretty well for Canada as I have published, trained students, done heaps of outreach, and brought in some decent dollars to the places I have worked.  But I recognize that there was a tradeoff then--that money could have gone to Canadian scholars to foster their research.

Criticizing the new program for focusing resources away from Canadian scholars in Canada is a reasonable argument.  An unreasonable argument is "it is possible universities may be forced to select professors from second- or third-rate international institutions." 

One of the best ways to attract great scholars is to poach them precisely from places that are not so highly ranked.  Just because a scholar is at a school with a lesser reputation does not mean the scholar is not great.  The academic job market is not perfect, so many terrific people end up in places that are not so terrific.  Indeed, the past decade or two of bad job markets insures that there are people who consider themselves to be underplaced--and they are exactly the people who are most likely to consider moving to a different country.  Try to steal from Stanford and you will have a hard time--the prof will be happy with their students and their pay and their situation and, yes, Stanford would outbid.  But get people from outside the top ten in the US, and you will find folks who would be thrilled to have diligent Canadian students, a better shot at grant money (SSHRC is 20-25%, NSF is 6% or so for political scientists), and a less insane political situation.

So, one can raise good questions about whether it makes sense to focus resources on a few (150, probably mostly science/tech/math/engineering) at mostly the top schools, but the strategy of poaching, especially now, is not a bad idea.  Go ahead and criticize the Canada 150 program--I feel very ambivalent about it myself--but make good, informed arguments.  Indeed, perhaps look back at the CRC program and ask whether Canada got its money's worth.  Oops, too late for that as the program is being rushed.  Now that is a worthwhile criticism.

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