The Threat of a Brain Drain Under a Trump Presidency Is Real

Top science and tech talent could choose to set up in other countries that are more hospitable to their work.
November 9, 2016, 4:34pm
Sortable offices in Waterloo, Ont. Image: Sortable

On Tuesday evening, as early election results began to tip in favour of Donald Trump becoming the next US president, Canada's immigration site actually crashed temporarily because it was getting so much traffic. A lot of Americans have either joked or threatened that, in the event of a Trump presidency, they'd be moving to Canada.

Now that Trump has won, there's a very real possibility that the US could face a brain drain as some of its top science and tech talent moves to greener pastures: After all, Trump has called climate change a hoax and spread misinformation about vaccines. Well, Canada just made it easier for skilled immigrants to come here to work. The federal government recently announced new measures that will help lure top tech talent.

Canada stands to benefit from more skilled immigrants under a Trump regime, confirmed a note published by a strategist with RBC Capital Markets in September. That's because the US would be "potentially viewed as less hospitable to immigrants overall," the note says.

Sortable CEO and founder Christopher Reid. Image: Sortable

Some Canadian startups are looking forward to recruiting from the US. "It's been a giant pain in the ass to bring in foreign talent," said Christopher Reid, the CEO of Sortable, a startup based in Waterloo, Ont. that uses machine learning to optimize digital ads. (Founded two years ago, Sortable has about 50 employees.)

The new immigration measures introduced by Canada are going to be "really useful," he continued, as he praised Waterloo's startup culture—it's home to big names like Kik and Thalmic Labs, to name a few.

As for scientists, many are worried about how a Trump presidency will affect their research and funding. For now, it's impossible to say exactly what the impact will be—for one thing, he's never held elected office before. But when Nature asked scientists on Twitter how they thought the election would affect them, there was dread: worry over National Institutes of Health funding (it's currently the largest biomedical research funder in the world), worry about possible cutbacks for climate change research, worry over the future generation of scientists.

Read More: What a Trump Presidency Means For Science

"Aside his pronunciations about climate change denial and anti-vaccination, the President Elect has made it clear there will substantive cuts to income tax as well as spending," Jim Woodgett, investigator and director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, told me in an email. "Add to this the fact that most scientists tend to align with Democratic ideals and there are many anxious researchers."

It's impossible to say right now whether Canada, or any other country, will benefit from the flight of some of the top minds in the US. But, given the uncertainties ahead as Trump prepares to take office, the risk of an American brain drain is real.

Canadians will be familiar with the feeling that some of their best researchers are being lured away to other countries: It's grappled with its own brain drain for years, which it's now consciously working to reverse.

"We've had many years of net migration of our brightest minds to our southern neighbour," Woodgett noted. "I'd say it's time to repay the compliment."

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