International science ‘superstar’ walks away from $10-million grant

Published: November 14, 2012

Diabetes researcher Patrick Rorsman gave up $10-million research post at the University of Alberta and returned to England. Credit: UofA

By Margaret Munro
Postmedia News
A European scientist widely described as a “superstar” when he was lured to Alberta with $10 million from the federal government, has aborted his Canadian experiment.

After just seven months at the University of Alberta, Patrik Rorsman returned to England, forfeiting his $10-million Canada Excellence Research Chair.

Rorsman was one of 19 foreign men awarded lucrative deals at Canadian universities in 2010 as part of a $190-million Canada Excellence Research Chair program, the federal government’s ambitious science talent drive.

Gary Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology, announced last week that Canadian universities will be recruiting 11 more “world-renowned” researchers in the next round of appointments.

Michèle Boutin, executive director of the program, says the universities have in effect been given “hunting licences” to go and find  ”rock star” scientists to fill the positions, each of which will receive up to $10 million over seven years from the federal government. The government says the  grants are among the most prestigious and generous in the world.

Goodyear made no mention of Rorsman’s aborted experiment in his announcement, which said the 2010 chairholders “are currently working in 13 institutions across the country, contributing to Canadians’ well-being and the country’s global competitiveness.”

Rosman is in fact back in England, pursuing diabetes research at Oxford University.

Boutin said  casualties were to be expected. “We never expected we would have 19 completely happy successful chairholders for seven years,” Boutin told Postmedia News.

The University of Alberta received $1,016,666 from the federal program to pay for Rorsman’s short stay.

Rorsman’s departure underscores why the government’s bid “to bag big game” is a “very bad investment for Canada,” says James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers and a critic of the research-chair program.

He is calling on the  government to stop looking  for scientific “all stars – as if science were a baseball or hockey game “ – and invest instead in Canadian researchers and facilities that are “starved” for funding.

The money “going down the drain’” with Rorsman’s chair could have helped save PEARL, the Canadian Arctic research station used by dozens of scientists to study the atmosphere and changing climate, says Turk. The lab stopped year-round operation when its federal money dried up earlier this year.

And, he says, the government has cut funding for the Experimental Lakes Area, a unique and internationally acclaimed aquatic research station in northwest Ontario, to save $2 million a year. The facility could be kept alive for five years with the money going to just one of the $10-million chairholders, says Turk.

The federal government and universities are going to extraordinary lengths to attract and accommodate the so-called “superchairs.”

Along with the $10 million in federal money, there is often more funding provided at the home universities, expansive labs and flexible working arrangements. One scientist, whose family still lives in Denmark, has negotiated a deal that allows him to spend two-thirds of his time away from the University of Manitoba so he can pursue Arctic field world and focus on international collaborations.

Rorsman was hired away from Britain’s Oxford University to build a top diabetes research team in Edmonton.

Rorsman says he had been “quite excited about the potential adventure” when the University of Alberta came calling. Negotiators offered not only $10 million, but assurances that his family would be accommodated, and some of his research staff could be “fast-tracked” through immigration and join his lab in Canada.

Reality was a little different, he says.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada took months to process his staff’s immigration requests.

“And frankly there are other things you would like to do when you are establishing a new lab than having to sort out the immigration,” Rorsman said in a recent telephone from England.

But he says the deal-breaker was the way the University of Alberta treated his wife, who had initially planned to move to Edmonton, leaving their children, aged 16 to 22, and aging parents behind.

His wife works in administration at Oxford University, and Rorsman says she was offered a good position in Edmonton. But she was told she could only have two weeks vacation a year. She asked for 11 more days without pay. “Unfortunately  the university was not very flexible on that score,” he says.

As her negotiations dragged on – and her enthusiasm for Canada began to wane – Rorsman headed to Edmonton in February 2011. In the end, his wife decided not to move.

Meantime, the challenge of starting a lab in Edmonton was sinking in.

“It is quite a nice place, they have ambitions for their city and the university is also ambitious,” says Rorsman, “but they suffer from the climate.“

He also realized it might be  more difficult than expected to recruit people to his Edmonton lab. “A lot of the people I would be interested in recruiting from other places, they would hesitate to move to Edmonton,” He says. “So basically you are left with people who are local and maybe from surrounding areas, which is not bad but it’s good to have some influx of talent from other places as well.”

Rorsman says he tried to negotiate a new deal so he could rejoin his wife in England. He says he  offered to give up his “inflated” salary at the University of Alberta, if he could spend three-quarters of his time in Oxford and  run the Canadian research effort from afar, making periodic visits.

“As principal  investigator  you don’t run the science yourself,” he says, noting how he could have stayed in close touch by email and Skype. ”Lots of people do that all the time.”

Rorsman says the university said no and he resigned. “I sincerely hoped it would work out, but unfortunately it didn’t.”

He has revived his diabetes program at Oxford, and was last year awarded generous funding from Wellcome Trust to run his team of about 15 scientists and graduate students trying to understand the hormonal and metabolic changes associated with diabetes.

In hindsight, Rorsman says the Canadian Excellence Chairs program “delivered on most points.”

“It just had to be finessed a little be more to make the ride a little bit smoother,” he says.

Peter Light, director of the Alberta Diabetes Institute at the University of Alberta, says it’s at shame it didn’t work out. But he says Rorsman’s short stay enabled the university to establish collaborations with Oxford that it hopes to build on.

Like other observers,  Light says there were teething problems with the CERC program. He suggests the government should be targeting “up and coming superstars” rather than established researchers, who would be  less expensive to attract and are often more flexible.

While Rorsman has left, Boutin in Ottawa says the other 18 chairs are settling in.

“For some of them, it’s amazing the amount of productivity that they have been able to achieve given the period of transition,” says Boutin. “I didn’t expect things to go so well, so quickly.”

Each chair is different, with some focused on work here in Canada and others involved with international collaborations.

Søren Rysgaard, at the University of Manitoba, spends about one-third of his time in Manitoba, another third on field work and one-third at research centres in Greenland and Denmark, says David Barber, the U of M’s associate dean and Arctic researcher who courted Rysgaard to come to Canada.

Rysgaard’s wife and six children, who live in Denmark, are used to him being away for long stretches and the arrangement seems to be  working “just fine,” says Barber.

He says Rysgaard recently gave up his position as head of the Greenland Climate Research Centre but remains co-director of the  Arctic Research Center at Aarhus University in Denmark.

The position in Denmark is unpaid, says Barber, noting that federal rules say Rysgaard must be paid full-time by the University of Manitoba.

Rysgaard,  who specializes in Arctic “geomicrobiology” and climate change,  is helping build what university officials call “the top climate change research facility in the world.”

The $10-million chair has enabled the university to attract a total of $56 million for Arctic and climate science, says Barber, pointing to expansive new labs being financed with private and provincial funding to house Rysgaard and other recent additions to the team.

There is also a new sea-ice environmental research facility financed by the Canada Foundation for Innovation  – “essentially a heavily reinforced swimming pool,” says Barber – to grow sea ice under controlled conditions.

Rysgaard has helped the university create an Arctic science partnership with academic institutions in Greenland and Denmark, which was signed last summer and will see Arctic scientists converge in Gimli Manitoba this month (November).

“We wanted to build our research networks so they were more connected internationally, and he’s been absolutely fantastic at doing that.“ says Barber, whose spend a month in Greenland this year as part of the burgeoning collaboration. Next year researchers form Denmark and Greenland will work on a Canadian research ship.

“The CERC from my perspective has not been just a success, but an absolutely resounding success,” says Barber.

“It’s opened up an amazing number of doors for our researchers here in Canada,” he says.

To optimize the $10-million research chairs, Barber says a university needs to be “110 per cent” behind it and help resolve problems such as immigration which was also an issue for Rysgaard’s staff relocating to Manitoba.

The University of Alberta was seen as the big winner of the 2010 CERC program when it was awarded four of the $10-million chairs in the 2010 competition. The Edmonton university will not be involved in the next competition, which will see 11 scientists recruited to eight universities. The University of British Columbia, McGill University and Queen’s University will each get two superchairs.

Edmonton’s three remaining chair holders from the 2010 competition are making “excellent progress,” says Deb Hammacher, the university’s associate vice-president of external relations.

She says the university is not allowed to discuss details of employment so cannot comment on Rorsman’s resignation or negotiations with his wife.

She said the more than $1 million in federal funding spent on Rorsman’s stay included money spent on seven months’ salary, lab equipment and hiring research team members. “The research projects begun during his time here have continued under the leadership of other University of Alberta researchers,” Hammacher said via email.


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