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THE BLACK HOLE

A wish list for our new ‘pro-science’ government

By DAVID KENT | NOV 25 2015

In my last post, I alluded to a wish list for our new government that would “inspire change across a country that has become, in international eyes, a non-supportive scientific environment.” When I began my PhD in 2003, there was much more liveliness in the science community of Canada: people had bold ideas for how to create vibrant scientific research environments, networks of scientists emerged, pooling resources to work together. Now it rather seems that they are fighting over scraps (just listen to the feedback about recent changes to CIHR’s grant structure); scientists are worried about their jobs and the job security of their employees.

Why is this so close to my heart? Those who have followed our blog probably know that both Jonathan and I are Canadian-trained PhDs who left Canada in 2008/09 to pursue research elsewhere, and when the time came to establish our independent research groups (over the last two years), the opportunities in Canada were severely limited and the environment was as described – fighting for scraps. We both independently opted to set up groups at Harvard (Jonathan) and Cambridge (me) and, in Jonathan’s case, this meant years of separation from his partner who relocated back to Canada.

So, now Canada has two ministers with “science” in their portfolio and a strong mandate for change. What will happen next?

Our newly ensconced Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has issued mandate letters to each minister, all publicly available. To the Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, he has said:

“We are a government that believes in science – and a government that believes that good scientific knowledge should inform decision-making.  We believe that investments in scientific research, including an appropriate balance between fundamental research to support new discoveries and the commercialization of ideas, will lead to good jobs and sustainable economic growth.”

Some of the specific top priorities for the Hon. Ms. Duncan are:

  1. Create a Chief Science Officer
  2. Ensure that environmental assessment decisions are based on science, facts, and evidence
  3. Help employers create more co-op placements
  4. Re-insert scientific considerations into the heart of our decision-making
  5. Examine options to strengthen the recognition of, and support for, fundamental research to support new discoveries

The language is all pointing in the right direction (haven’t scientists been begging for more of numbers 4 and 5 for decades?), so I hope that many academic brains will get to work to put the very best ideas onto a receptive table. The following is my personal wish list based on our years of writing on these issues.

Increase the presence of scientists in Parliament/government

A personal favourite scheme of mine (though admittedly small) was something I heard first from former national science adviser Art Cart,y who wanted to have professors go on sabbatical to Parliament and/or provincial legislatures. I think that for key issues which involve substantial amounts of science (climate change, healthcare, human embryonic stem cells, etc.), it would be especially useful to have experts in Ottawa constantly informing the debate. For example, such experts could give reports to the House, make points of clarification during committee meetings, or even identify possible outcomes/solutions from the field that have not yet entered the mainstream.

A more comprehensive solution would be for Canada to do what the U.K. and U.S. do and embed science advice inside the departments/ministries themselves. The very first line on the web page of the UK Office for Science says “Every government department has a chief scientific adviser.” Canadians should be drooling at the prospect.

Wish 1:  Sabbaticals in parliament and more federal and provincial department-affiliated scientists 

Hire scientists to do scientific research

Currently, the academic enterprise forces the vast majority of scientists to stop doing work at the lab bench. The career structure is such that one gets a PhD, then does some postdoctoral research, then either leaves science or goes on to manage scientists. Many universities and institutes have created permanent positions for grant facilitators, project managers, human resources managers, accountants, etc., as essential components of the research enterprise … but why not scientists?

A postdoctoral fellow position should be restricted to those that are explicitly involved in a purposeful temporary training experience: retooling, gaining research independence with the intention to move on to start their own research group. If you want hands to drive projects that fall outside of a technician’s role, then hire scientists, pay them well, keep them happy, and watch the benefits roll in.

Wish 2:  Create respectable, well-compensated positions for PhDs who love bench work, love exploring new ideas, love academic lab environments, but are simply not going to (nor do they want to) run their own lab.

Define the status of early career scientists

Early career researchers do not have clear employment or administrative status. Across the country, scientists with PhDs at universities can be classified as employees, students, independent contractors, or trainees. Oftentimes, this does not match to how they are viewed with respect to federal and/or provincial employment or labour classification. After many years of advanced formal education, most post-PhD scientists do not perceive themselves as “students” or “trainees” (CAPS survey) but as similar to other employees at their institutions and deserving of access to the same employee benefits.

In fact, it has always puzzled me why young scientists are not viewed in the same way that young doctors, lawyers and accountants are viewed – the training is more or less complete, this is their first (often temporary) job, they are employees. Why are post-PhD scientists not employees?

Wish 3: Define the status of early career scientists – trainees or employees? (My personal preference based on experience in both systems is the latter: post-PhD scientists should have jobs).

Create government-funded research buildings in priority areas

Previous investment in infrastructure is still very relevant – the MaRS Discovery District is still one of the most highly concentrated groups of university and hospital researchers in the world and the buildings and the networks of scientists are still strong. Other targeted investments were made in many areas across the country and Canada has consistently been ranked highly in its ability to train students. The Canada Foundation for Innovation did a particularly good job building infrastructure in the medical sciences. The reality is that in order to compete internationally, Canada needs to identify in which areas of science it has a competitive edge (e.g., marine biology, oil and gas engineering, stem cells and regenerative medicine, forestry, etc), then the country needs to invest in comprehensive programs to build the capacity to make real-world impacts. The basic science needs to be strong, the pathway to economic, social, or health benefit needs to be well-oiled, and the end-users need to know that Canada is the place to invest in those key areas.

My own expertise is too limited to specify which areas need investment, but it seems to me that government-funded research centres in areas of national interest (e.g, fresh water security, public health, etc) are a very good starting point.

Wish 4: Specific investment in government funded research institutes and operations in areas where Canada has a competitive edge.

Summary

Interestingly, three of the four on this list involve people – and I really do believe that investment in people is the way forward. Internationally, the pressures on early career scientists are on their career progression and not on the research they produce. Could the cart be further in front of the horse?  I’m not suggesting permanent jobs for everyone that wants to pick up a lab coat, but what I am suggesting is to make jobs in science meaningful and plentiful.

This is not just the responsibility of government – scientists need to improve their own environment and contribute to the evidence-base. Most importantly, they need to understand how science policy works (I’ve written about this before). It’s a two way street that can benefit both sides enormously without costing a huge amount of money.

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
David Kent is a group leader at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute. His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Philip G Hultin / November 25, 2015 at 2:42 pm

    I am a casualty of the Harper era; my independent research career was terminated in 2010 by the changes in NSERC’s Discovery Grant system that made QUANTITY an essential aspect of excellence. What it did was make it impossible for someone to survive without working on industrial projects or short-term top-of-mind issues like curing cancer, especially when working at the bottom of the U15 list.

    So, what I want the new government to do is to return NSERC to its pre-Harper mandate of providing support for scientific research and scientific training in all of Canada’s regions. We should be judged on the QUALITY of our work – and if quantity is also present, then maybe we should get more support, but we all know that it is easier to run a big research group in Toronto than it is in Winnipeg. The old DG program was the envy of the world. The international review committee in 2007 said as much, but that was not the answer that Harper wanted, so the DG system was revamped according to the letter of the review but contrary to its spirit. We need to undo those changes.

    It’s too late for me, my productivity is past the 6-year rolling window so even if everything went back right now I could not get back into the NSERC DG system. But it’s not too late for the future.

    • David Kent / November 27, 2015 at 1:47 pm

      Philip – you are one of many I am sure – the DG programme changes were quite dramatic. In particular, I think you make an excellent point about funding “big” science…. it seems at the funding level (and with journals) that more is better rather than simply doing high quality and not particularly expensive experiments. I’m in medical science and have a lot of exposure to large scale genome-wide projects… some of the amounts of money being spent on poor quality but very big science is astounding. Jonathan and I will be dedicating a chunk of our book to this problem in the current science model for sure. Thanks for your (brave) comments – never easy to discuss such issues publicly.

  2. Sonja / November 26, 2015 at 2:20 pm

    Good ideas Dave, though I’m not sure that the kind of change I’d like to see will happen without explicitly addressing who is afforded the opportunity to conduct research, and whom it benefits. So, I had a few wishes of my own to add…
    – Set specific targets for the inclusion of hitherto marginalized voices in science research, at all levels and stages of the research process. Including Indigenous peoples, underrepresented minorities, people living with chronic illness and/or disability, GLBTQ individuals and many more. I don’t mean research *on* these populations, but rather *by* these populations. How many new investigators can you (or anyone) name who identify under any of these categories?
    – Provide robust funding support for Indigenous health research, recognizing that the variables integral to the success of such endeavors (long-term building of capacity and relationship, community-based approaches, equitable participation) may be different than values of Western science (individual achievement through competition with others, reductionism)
    – Measure success as self-reported positive impact on the lives of a diversity of populations, giving special weight to marginalized communities, rather than the current, in my opinion rather limited, metrics of success (impact factors, numbers of patents filed, potential for commercial gain)

  3. SC / November 27, 2015 at 12:20 pm

    Good suggestions but I would a few more:

    1. Place tri-council funding agencies (CIHR, NSERC, SSHRC) under the same Science ministry, together with CFI.
    2. Encourage universities to end tenure (not under federal mandate and probably a pipe dream, but we CAN dream right?)
    3. Promote larger number of smaller grants (more NSERC model than CIHR)
    4. End recruitment of post-doctoral fellows under Work permit (if they are not going to be treated as employees, then why lie to them? It’s like universities are perpetrating immigration fraud on a mass scale! I’m an overseas-born Canadian too and this abuse of foreign postdocs is a shameful practice that just needs to end)
    5. Restrict funding for graduate students- maximum 2.5 yrs for MSC and 5 yrs for PhD

    Bring on more ideas and let the conversations going………..

    • David Kent / November 27, 2015 at 1:44 pm

      Hi SubC – long time since we’ve heard from you – glad to see you back in action. I like your suggestions and agree that we need to keep the discussion going. Our intention was to stimulate people to get these items on the table for a government that appears to have at least some political will to make Canada a more supportive science environment. In particular I think your points about foreign born postdocs and the length of time to PhD completion. The latter is particularly important for those who do not continue in academic science.

  4. R. Craigen / November 27, 2015 at 1:03 pm

    I have a few items for your wishlist. First, stop confusing science with political ideology. This has been a bad habit of the liberals for decades now, and has gotten worse to the point of shrillness with the new government. Stop calling activists “scientists” unless they actually are. To many “science agenda” items nowadays are actually “political agenda” items with a patina of scientific nomenclature often they correspond to fields of genuine science but what falls into the named categories is almost entirely advocacy and often anti-science in the name of supporting a predetermined political ideology.

    Of the three you listed (Climate change, health care and human embryonic stem cell research) two are currently so piled high with advocacy and ideological agendas (on all sides) it is hard to see the “research”. And … when you do find the research you find it runs contrary to the “narrative” generally sold as if it were settled science. So I argue that it is inadequate to simply say “hey, government! Make this a priority!” In point of fact, you can see that, as far as they are concerned, it IS a priority. But perhaps … just perhaps … what they are doing in prioritizing it is rather short on science and long on ideology. And perhaps they simply find your call to be an encouragement to keep on doing just that.

    In general, stop policitizing science. Let science be what it is, and let science dictate what science is worth pursuing.

    Also, stop draining funds from fundamental science. That is the basic fuel of the more whiz-bang stuff with tangible effects.

    • David Kent / November 27, 2015 at 1:32 pm

      To: R Craigen,

      I think you have misread the intention here and apologise if I wasn’t clear… the intention of scientists in Parliament is to help the scientific research be part of the discussion in heavily politicised issues, not to increase funding to those areas of research. More scientists bringing more objective facts to the table to make evidence-based policy making achievable.

      For research funding (a different matter altogether) I completely agree that fundamental research is critical to fund and arguably requires the most support from government because its benefits are not always obvious.

      Thanks for your comments.
      David

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