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Canada came calling for a Duke professor. Does that portend something bigger?

A news industry union wants Duke University to cut ties with one of its alumni.
A news industry union wants Duke University to cut ties with one of its alumni. rgronberg@heraldsun.com

Duke University wins its share of faculty recruiting battles, and loses its share too. Still, it's not every day that it loses one and sees the departing professor count the country's propensity toward gun violence among the reasons why.

But exactly that happened on March 29 when the chairwoman of Duke's Arts & Sciences Council, mathematician Anita Layton, accepted one of the "Canada 150" research professorships the government of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decided to finance last year.

Layton told two different news outlets, the Toronto Globe & Mail and the trade publication Inside Higher Education, that gun violence had joined professional and personal considerations in prompting her to trade an endowed professorship at Duke for a position at the University of Waterloo this summer.

"There are pros and cons in every decision you make," Layton said on Friday, a day after Trudeau's government announced that she and 23 other academics had accepted one of the Canada 150 chairs. "I have two children. If I'm just me, the decision might very well be different. But I'm also a mother."

She told the Globe & Mail she finds it sad that "normal life" in this country includes regular school lock-down exercises. And in talking to The Herald-Sun on Friday, she added that her daughter's school had also received a recent bomb threat.

For a lot of the new hires, conditions in this country are "a contributing factor, let's put it that way," Layton said.

Make no mistake, the Canada 150 chairs are a good opportunity for an academic regardless of the motive for accepting one.

They come with either $350,000 or $1 million a year in Canadian dollars for seven years. That's the equivalent of $271,438 or $775,280 a year in U.S. dollars at current exchange rates, and is money recipients can use to fund their research through the hiring of post-doctoral students, graduate students and or the purchase of equipment.

Layton, who specializes in trying to create mathematical models of kidney function, is getting the smaller of the two possible awards. As a mathematician, "I'm cheap" to hire, she quipped, noting that the larger awards were earmarked for people doing high-cost work like engineering or clinical trials in medicine.

Regardless, the award "sounds like a great opportunity to advance her work," said Michael Schoenfeld, Duke's vice president for public affairs and government relations. "We wish her equally great success as we will miss her."

Trudeau's government set up the Canada 150 awards last year, earmarking $117.6 million Canadian dollars to the cause (about $91.2 million in U.S. dollars, at current exchange rates).

The project's name alludes the 150th anniversary of Canada's confederation in 1867.

But along with any considerations of national pride, Canadian officials were eager to both to promote the sciences and maybe capitalize on the political turmoil that's engulfed the U.S. and the United Kingdom in the wake of the 2016 elections that saw Britain vote to leave the European Union and an Electoral College majority put New York City real estate magnate Donald Trump in the Oval Office.

Up front, they said the awards were open only to "top-tier international scholars and researchers," to include Canadian expatriates interested in coming home from the U.S. and other countries.

That prompted grumbling among some Canadian academics, with University of Regina history professor Raymond Blake giving voice to their complaints at being shut out. In a newspaper op-ed, he said the initiative could easily yield a crop of people from "second- or third-rate international institutions."

"There is no evidence to suggest the brightest minds at Harvard, Oxford, MIT and other leading international schools are eager to vacate their posts for Saskatoon, Sherbrooke or St. John’s," Blake wrote last year.

Suffice it to say, that hasn't played out. Thursday's crop of hires included, along with Duke's Layton, U.S.-based researchers who are leaving jobs at Harvard, Brown, Indiana University, Johns Hopkins, the University of Michigan and three different University of California branches.

The Harvard academic in the group, chemist Alán Aspuru-Guzik, made waves ahead of Thursday's announcement by telling the Globe & Mail he'd been looking to leave the U.S. anyway because of Trump's election and its associated portents of authoritarianism.

"Many of my colleagues have told me that they will leave the United States if things get worse,” Aspuru-Guzik told the Toronto paper. “The difference is that I already think it’s worse.”

Any such talk, of course, calls to mind the wave of emigration in the 1930s that saw a good bit of Europe's top scientific talent move to the U.S. to escape the Nazis.

Physicist Albert Einstein was the headliner of the group, but one of the earliest departees was aerodynamicist Theodore von Kármán. He hired on at Cal Tech in 1930, accepting an offer amid fretting about the Nazis' initial political successes. He went on to help found the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which ironically is losing to Canada 150 a researcher who's said accepting the offer will give him more freedom to travel for his work than he'd have as a U.S. academic with federal-government ties.

At Duke, administrators see Layton's departure as one of the routine comings and goings of academia.

"We have 3,000 faculty members and there’s always transition in and out based on personal and professional priorities, and opportunities," Schoenfeld said. "There's no pattern here and we're not seeing any evidence of a 'brain drain' to other countries. Just the opposite, in fact."

He cited Duke's success over the past couple of years in recruiting new faculty for Provost Sally Kornbluth's "quantitative initiative," the university's attempt to bolster its ranks in fields like biostatistics, math and computing.

Layton is among the 10 Canadian expatriates in the Canadian 150 group announced on Thursday, and in going to Waterloo, will be living close to her Toronto-based parents.

But the bottom line is that the Canadian government, in budgeting for the project, showed researchers their work will be "valued and supported," she said.

"For the government to give you seven years of funding that allows you to do anything you can imagine and not run out of money, that's important," Layton said. "That's even more important for someone in the medical [field]. They don't have to worry that 'If I don't get my next NIH [grant] I have to fire everybody in my lab.'"

"If you give people support and they have other reasons, for example family ties in Canada, that will be a deciding factor for them," she said. "Isn't that how the U.S. attracted a lot of its talent, many years ago?"

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

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