Four leading scientists from British universities will move to Canada next year as part of a new federal research program, stoking fears in the U.K. that a full-fledged brain drain may be imminent there.

On Monday at the University of Toronto, Minister of Industry Tony Clement announced the Canada Excellence Research Chairs, a program focused on science and technology that he said is designed to help "universities develop, attract and retain the world's best researchers here in Canada."

Under the program, 19 elite scientists will receive up to $10 million each, over seven years, to support their work at Canadian universities.

Four of the chairs hail from the U.K., where news of their departure made national headlines.

An article in the Guardian newspaper said the country will "lose several of its foremost scientists" as part of "a recruitment drive to attract top brains to Canada."

The newspaper noted that several senior scientists at British institutions warned recently that "a brain drain was imminent as the new government prepares to make swingeing cuts in public spending that are likely to have a heavy impact on research funding."

An 18-month recession has left the British government with a US$236 billion deficit, apparently leading some researchers to look for opportunities abroad.

Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist who set up a brain-imaging centre at Cambridge University, is among those who are leaving. He and his research staff will join the University of Western Ontario.

"U.K. science is going through a period of uncertainty, and many of my more senior colleagues said this might not be a bad time to be leaving," Owen told the Guardian.

"There's nobody in the U.K. putting down $20 million saying, 'We think what you're doing is really cool, come and do it here.'"

Here are some of the other major moves:

  • Howard Wheater, director of the Environment Forum at Imperial College London, will leave to conduct water-security research at the University of Saskatchewan.
  • Graham Pearson, of Durham University, will move to the University of Alberta where he will study Arctic resources.
  • Oxford's Patrik Rorsman will also move to the University of Alberta, to work on diabetes research.