$10M grant not enough for ‘rock star’ scientist to brave Edmonton’s winters

Over 25 centimetres of snow fell on Edmonton in the first winter storm of the year two weeks ago.

Weather has always been a topic of consternation in Edmonton, where frigid air sweeps across the long prairies and rushes through streets, rattling the most resolute residents and shaking loose so many others.

Those born into it embrace it or leave. Others lured there to face the freeze must decide whether it is where they want to root. For many, more attractive options pull them away.

The Edmonton Oilers have had trouble holding onto elite players in the past — players such as Chris Pronger, who begged out of town, and Danny Heatley, who refused a trade to Edmonton when he was still talented enough to be coveted.

Even Oilers owner Daryl Katz seems to have soured on the city's climate, reportedly living most frequently in a home in the U.S. and musing openly about moving the team to rainy Seattle. (Although he doesn't seem to mind spending his money in Alberta.)

The same sentiment was expressed recently by Patrik Rorsman, a celebrated European scientist who was lured to the University of Alberta by a $10 million research grant.

"It is quite a nice place, they have ambitions for their city and the university is also ambitious, but they suffer from the climate," Rorsman told the National Post.

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Rorsman was one of 19 foreign scientists lured to Canadian universities two years ago as part of a federal strategy to attract "rock star" scientists.

After seven months in Edmonton, Rorseman resigned from the Canada Excellence Research Chair, turned his back on the $10 million grant and returned to England.

Rorseman told the Post that part of his reason was family related — his wife faced issues with employment and immigration and elected to stay behind — but he also faced issues running his laboratory in Edmonton.

Cold, unattractive Edmonton.

"A lot of the people I would be interested in recruiting from other places, they would hesitate to move to Edmonton. So basically you are left with people who are local and maybe from surrounding areas," he told the newspaper.

Edmonton has taken a snowball or two in the face over its climate. It is North America's northernmost city with a population of more than one million. It is cold, as the prairies tend to be, and admits it suffers from a perception problem.

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It is a perception the city believes it can fix by embracing its situation.

The City of Edmonton has recently launched a strategy known as WinterCity. Instead of running in shame from its winter weather, it believes it can use it to carve out a niche in the world.

Part of the strategy involves a committee that creates more opportunities for outdoor activities and festivals, lures winter-centric industries to the city and works to change residents' attitude toward winter.

"For too long, this city has accepted 'good enough' as the standard by which to measure things," Mayor Stephen Mandel recently told the Edmonton Journal. "I think the committee has found the weather ain't that bad … Winter is a beautiful time here."

It is a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," kind of solution that is probably a little too optimistic to have a significant impact. But they are trying, and maybe the next time a Chris Pronger or Patrik Rorsman comes to visit, they'll notice the difference.

(Photo courtesy CBC)