June 19, 2024

Political expatriate

Theoretical chemist Alán Aspuru-Guzik was among many US citizens who talked of moving to Canada after the November 2016 election of Donald Trump as US president. Now, Aspuru-Guzik has made good on his declaration, and will begin a new post in July. He explains how the US political climate prompted him to leave his tenured post at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after nearly20 years in the country.

Why are you leaving the United States?

The nation is at a crossroads. Is it going to continue as a civil society in which politicians and people from different sides respect each other? Or is it going to become a country that has lost political decency and dialogue? Why not use my skills in a country where I don’t have to worry about the next national drama, and can concentrate on my science and be with people who share my values?

What will you be doing?

I’ve accepted a post as a Canada 150 Research Chair in theoretical and quantum chemistry at the University of Toronto, worth Can$1 million (US$780,000) a year for 7 years. I’ll also be a faculty member at the Vector Institute, which is the new artificial-intelligence research institute in Toronto.

What is the Canada 150 programme?

The Canadian government announced last year that it would invest Can$117. 6 million to enhance the country’s “reputation as a global centre for science, research and innovation excellence, in celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary”. Canadian institutions get a one-off lump sum to attract top-tier researchers.

Alan Aspuru-Guzik

What disturbs you most about the US political environment?

We don’t have a very civilized way of passing budgets, so even though spending for science was increased, it’s tied up with military increases. We have to try to solve climate-change problems. But the United States just left the Paris agreement. I am a dual US–Mexican citizen. I have been here for 20 years, and it doesn’t look like it’s getting better. Even when the Democrats were in power, the same political war was being waged between the parties. This is the way democracies end – not by coups anymore.

What was it like to work in the United States as a dual national?

I’ve been lucky to be in some of the most inclusive places in the United States. I lived roughly half of my time in California and half of it in Massachusetts. I have a PhD; I helped to launch start-up companies; I’m a professor at Harvard and I’ve published a lot. I’m one of the very privileged in the United States. But how about others who are not? Why should I not worry about them?

Are there drawbacks to vacating your position and leaving collaborators?

I’m leaving a favourable ecosystem. But there are many other great places. Toronto is one. It’s one of the most diverse cities in the world, and Canada is leading the world in artificial intelligence and quantum computing. I plan to continue my collaborations at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge with key collaborators, and I’ll continue to expand them in Canada.

What are your thoughts about leaving the United States and Harvard in general?

All moves are bittersweet. I’m not leaving in any way or form because of Harvard. I’m thankful for them as a platform for my career – they were extremely supportive. Some people believe that one should spend forever in a single place. I think that shouldn’t be the case. Sometimes we should do this more often. So I also think it’s great that somebody else will take my position at Harvard and that there will be new activity.

What do you see as the main cultural differences between the United States and Canada?

In Canada, people on the street emphasize how welcome you are. And even though you have disagreements, you can still respect your opponents.

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