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Is the academy worse than the fashion industry for “following the leader”?

Posted on August 19, 2014 by

I hate to admit this, but I find an incredible number of scientific papers really boring. It seems that more and more, research papers are using the same sets of sexy and expensive tools without actually answering the question they set out to explore and overload their readers with “big data”. It further appears that this is the primary formula for getting published in big journals – and the nasty part of that whole business is that publishing big is controlled by an ever-diminishing fraction of the world’s scientists.

Remember when you were in high school, and there were popular ways to dress and popular places to be? It was difficult for some kids to afford to keep up while other non-conformists simply opted out of “being popular”. Eventually, we look back fondly at these people who didn’t follow along – many of them had a much better sense of self and preferences.  No matter how much the popular groups or trends pushed, some people just didn’t buckle and emerged many years later as cool people with novel ideas.

My fear is that the academy is subject to the same primitive bullying techniques resulting in social exclusion as a consequence of breaking rank. The system (unknowingly?) props up the careers of a cadre of researchers who are just really good at following along. The really sad corollary to this in the age of tight funding is that we lose the non-conformist kids who have the creative ideas of today and tomorrow. Surely universities are the place that should foster new and alternative ideas and approaches and be immune to such behaviour. Academic bullying is a problem and it’s squeezing the creativity and lifeblood out of science.

Let me explain how I see this operating. The three things that matter most to a scientist’s career progression are publications, grants, and personal reputation (e.g., the ability to attract the best PhDs and postdocs). All three are determined by a frighteningly small number of people who have the power to socially exclude for their own benefit (e.g., keep an idea out of the mainstream, promote the careers of the people they like, etc, etc). While they don’t necessarily do this, the power is theirs to wield.

How might this manifest itself? One example is that the experiments requested by reviewers are often expensive and technology-laden, only really performable at the top-flight institutions in the world (kinda like that new watch that everyone “must have”). Dan Tenen, a professor at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute jokingly refers to these as “Figure 5 – the experiments that the reviewer requested and never mean anything, but had to be done to get published”. While Dan’s lab is in the position to do the experiments and poke the fun at the process, this is sadly not the case for the vast majority of research labs. Not only does this process slow down science, but it also makes non-privileged scientists collaborate with the top dogs, thus reinforcing the circle. If the experiment addresses a fundamental flaw in the paper, fine – but I worry that this is not often the case.

Moreover, granting and funding agencies have “go to” people for peer review and one of the worst things they’ve done recently is made these panels public before applications are submitted. The “followers” will study these panels, look for what they’ve published and how they think and write their application to meet these criteria. Some people call this good strategic planning, I call it a unfortunate side effect of the need to survive. Again, we risk squeezing out the good novel ideas.

The challenge going forward must therefore be to create a scientific research environment where the pressure to publish falls a distant second to new idea generation and development of the human capital. At this juncture though, careers depend on papers, so scientists will do what it takes to get published…  sadly this all too often means towing the party line and not really exploring new ideas.

There are some interesting models out there for how to tackle this and I’ll be exploring those in future articles – for now though, ask yourself how representative our current system is when we often rely on the judgment of two to three experts chosen by a single journal editor or funding agency…

How to build Canada’s science and technology infrastructure

Posted on August 5, 2014 by


Government support of research and development should focus on expanding its ability to engage in early basic research, where justification for government intervention is strongest, while incentivizing programs that will help bring these discoveries to market. To better appreciate this point we need look no further than across our largest border. Over the last three decades American universities have taken on a greater role in research and development as many large corporations have shut down or repurposed their central research laboratories.

Bell Labs (a subsidiary of AT&T until 1995) is an excellent example. Founded in 1925, Bell Labs built the world’s most advanced and reliable telecommunications networks due to seminal scientific discoveries initially funded by a government grant of 50,000 Francs (~$250,000 in current dollars) awarded by the French government to Alexander Graham Bell in 1880. Because so much of their results spilled over to other firms and industries, the incentive for Bell Labs to continue to perform this kind of foundational, generic research began to wane as competition in the telecommunications industry arose in the 1980s and 1990s. In response, Bell Labs was restructured to focus on more incremental technological improvements with shorter-term payoffs.

Like Bell Labs, American companies have since continued to shift their corporate research and development to later-stage applied research and development in response to competition pressures, and between 1991 to 2008 basic research as a share of total corporate research and development funding in the United States had fallen by 3.2%, while applied research had fallen by 3.7%. In contrast, development’s share has increased by 6.9% (from the National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2010, appendix tables 4-7, 4-8, 4-9 and 4-10).

This is not only true of the U.S. but of Canada as well:

“Today, more than ever, successful innovations come from companies involved in partnership arrangements, whether with other firms or with knowledge institutions. This is a significant change from 40 or 50 years ago, when innovations generally came from large firms acting on their own.

In short, the innovation landscape has changed. And the rate of change is accelerating.”

- The Honourable Gary Goodyear (Minister of State, Science and Technology), 12th Annual Re$earch Money Conference. April 9, 2013

The prioritization of investment toward shorter-term, less fundamental research, such as ispresently being implemented by the Canadian government, stifle innovation by shrinking the knowledge pool that sustain later-stage research and development pipelines. In the U.S., universities currently perform 56% of all basic research, compared to 38% in 1960, which they pass on to the private sector in the form of patents. Between 1991 and 2009, licensing income in the U.S. increased from $1.9 million per institution to $13 million per institution, and new start-ups formed as a result of university research increased from 212 in 1994 to 685 in 2009 (see Richard Kordal, Arjun Sanga and Reid Smith, eds., AUTM Licensing Activity Survey: FY2009 Summary: A Survey Summary of Technology Licensing (and Related) Activity for U.S. Academic and Nonprofit Institutions and Technology Investment Firms; and Robert D. Atkinson and Scott M. Andes, The 2008 State New Economy Index:  Benchmarking Economic Transformation in the States.

The Expert Panel on Federal Support to Research and Development highlights this point by explaining that “the strength of the justification [for public support of research and development] declines as research activities progress through the various stages leading to commercialization – i.e., from basic research through to applied research, experimental development, and commercialization. The benefits of these successive activities are progressively more likely to be captured by the research and development performer, and there is correspondingly less likelihood of ‘spill-over’ to the larger economy.”

The Canadian government could not be better positioned to revitalize its science policy. Canadian postsecondary education is already recognized worldwide for its excellence, Canada presently graduates significantly more high-calibre research PhDs than it can gainfully employ, and the recent combination of automatic spending cuts the American public instituted to their federal budget this year, deadlocked Congress, and the diminishing support by the American government for the basic sciences has created a unique opportunity for Canada to reverse the brain-drain and establish itself as a world leader in knowledge market. By investing in more independent research positions that foster linkages between public and private sectors, re-evaluating the role scientists play in primary research institutions, restructuring patent laws to better reflect scientist contributions and incentive academics to partner with private companies to bring products to market, it is possible to leverage existing scientific infrastructure, bridge existing disconnects between research and development, and sling-shot Canadian innovation in the high technology sector into a dominant global role to drive economic growth in this country.

The Council of Canadian Academies ranked Canada’s science and technology as fourth in the world behind the U.S., the U.K. and Germany. It is time we start aiming for number one. Let this be this administration’s legacy.

Quarterly summary: Guest blogging continues to increase – join the fun!

Posted on July 22, 2014 by

Our guest blogging has finally started to ramp up to where we are getting numerous viewpoints on the key issues affecting early career researchers. We hope this momentum will continue and the Black Hole can be a place for people to express their opinions and generate discussion.

This quarter featured the following posts:

Erika / Jenn:

Brianne Kent:


Dave was busy over at Signals blog this quarter with some science posts on stem cells:

We hope that you’ve enjoyed the diversity over the past 6 months – do feel free to let us know your thoughts at and we’ll try to continue to adapt the Black Hole to the needs of the early career researcher community.

Remember to follow on Twitter (@scienceadvocacy) and join the Facebook group to get up to date posts and other ramblings. We hope our readers are enjoying summer to its fullest extent!

Basic research still the best bet to boost S&T innovation

Posted on July 2, 2014 by

In 2010 the federal government of Canada established an Expert Panel on Federal Support to Research and Development to provide advice on maximizing the effectiveness of federal support for basic research. To sustain the current level of prosperity Canada enjoys among first-world nations and maintain competitiveness in an increasingly challenging global context, the report specifies that significant advances are necessary in areas such as advanced materials, health, environmental sciences, and information and communications technologies (collectively classified as “high technology”).

Nevertheless, weak performance in business innovation and productivity growth (traditionally defined by BERD intensity) suggest that Canada is not well positioned to be an innovation leader. Among the report’s wide-ranging recommendations were a greater emphasis on direct support for business innovation, simplified program delivery and better access to risk capital for high-growth innovative firms.

There is good reason to be an innovation leader in the high technology industry. In the United States basic research has had an enormous impact on standard of living. A report by Edwin Mansfield cataloging the impact of academic research and industrial innovation on economic growth (Edwin Mansfield, “Academic Research and Industrial Innovation: An Update of Empirical Findings,” Research Policy 26, no. 7 (1998): 773-776) found that the social rate of return from investment in academic research was at least 40%. Likewise, a more recent study by the Science Coalition (Sparking Economic Growth: How Federally Funded University Research Creates Innovation, New Companies and Jobs, 2010) showed that “companies spun out of research universities have a far greater success rate than other companies.” Examples include Google, Medtronic and iRobot.

While these studies have provided the justification for public support of business research and development, the Expert Panel on Federal Support to Research and Development notes that “this justification is most compelling in instances where the activity is not likely to yield immediate profits or other benefits that can be limited to the individual research and development-performing firm, yet holds potential for longer-term benefits for society at large. Thus, the justification for government intervention is strongest in the case of basic research activities.”

Although the federal government appears to have understood that Canada’s long-term economic growth will be driven by science and innovation, their actions indicate otherwise. Doubling the size of the Industrial Research Assistance Program, shifting the funding priorities of the National Research Council away from basic research toward in favour of services that are driven by market and industry demand, promoting innovation through government procurement, investing in venture capital, and streamlining the Scientific Research and Experimental Development Tax Incentive Program) all fail to target basic early-stage research activities where justification for government intervention is strongest. Indeed, federal funding of the institutional costs of research for Canada’s universities average 23.3%, while the United States, United Kingdom and Australia provide 40-60%.

Federal stimulus packages designed to reposition Canada as an innovation leader should instead focus on expanding Canada’s ability to engage in early basic research while incentivizing programs that will help bring these discoveries to market. My next post will address how Canada can leverage this knowledge to strengthen its science and technology infrastructure.

The baby gap – who was that postdoc anyway?

Posted on June 16, 2014 by

Editor’s note: A few weeks back, Jenn and Erika shared their stories about being postdoctoral moms (here and here). Today the stories continue with a point by point entry and a Q & A response on the major challenges associated with the period away from the lab… 

A blank year on the CV
Child-rearing is an “acceptable delay” in training, and does not count towards eligibility requirements for Canadian federal fellowship funding opportunities – problem sorted right? Au contraire, friends, since private foundations and/or international positions do not always specify whether parental leave will count towards any limits in your post-PhD training period. However, even if the gap is explained in this way it also means that elements of your personal life will be made clear to prospective reviewers and employers. Legally this should not have an impact on their decisions to fund or hire you, but many debates have been sparked here and elsewhere as to how safely one can assume it will not factor into the decision.

Interrupted opportunities
Grant cycles, manuscript submission processes, field seasons, abstract deadlines and conferences…  the list goes on. Many of these elements will be “in progress” at the beginning or end of a parental leave. There are no specific guidelines on how to accommodate for this while you are away on leave, and it will depend on your situation and your supervisor. Erika will address this specifically in an upcoming post about the need for travel funding for postdocs on or returning from parental leave.

Science progresses
The work will carry on both in your lab and elsewhere. What happens to your project will depend on your supervisor and how quickly your particular research area is advancing. Perhaps it is reasonable to put the experiments on hold and wait for a year, or perhaps the collection of highly specialized models used for your project simply cannot ramp down and then back up in a year, or maybe you or your supervisor want to keep the data coming in with or without you. These are all highly individual issues that may require substantial coordination with your lab mates and supervisor, or even some personal sacrifice to ensure your departure has minimal effect on your success as a postdoc when you return. At the moment postdocs are on their own in mediating these potentially complicated issues, so in all likelihood a significant amount of flexibility will be required on their part to minimize the impact of up to 12 months of leave.  Hopefully you might get the same flexibility from your university, supervisor and lab mates – hopefully….

So what is it like to be away for a year?

Jenn: Honestly, I left on my last day with a tremendous sense of sadness, knowing I would never be the same when I came back. This is perhaps not the typical response for moms-to-be on their last days of work before parental leave! Many friends inquired that I must feel pleased to be finished with work for a while, to take a break. But that is just not how I felt. I really enjoy my job, the science and my colleagues. I liked the freedom of being able to work weekends and evenings, and never minded putting in long hours. Work was near the very top of my priority list, and I knew that was about to change and I had uneasy feelings about it. Many moms out there in the blogosphere have discussed the fact that, while we may have chosen (or struggled) to have a family and are thrilled and excited to become parents, it represents such a physical and life change that we can also experience a sense of loss for our former lives and lifestyles.

Overall, I’m pleased to report that it wasn’t as difficult to be away as I had anticipated. Once I had two infants to deal with, the lab rapidly faded into the background, which was comfortable enough since I knew it would reappear on my horizon. Having twins possibly forced me into essentially cutting off my “old” life more thoroughly than I had planned, and I enjoyed the elements of my new life as a mom (of course, I did not get around to writing that review though!) I did keep in touch with the odd email or contribution to writing, and even attended an important group meeting with a collaborator, with sleeping babies in tow in the stroller. I was keen to start poking around in the lab again as soon as was reasonable. My husband had a flexible schedule and therefore six months after the birth of my twins I was able to return to work one day per week while he was at home.

The government of Canada encourages a part-time return to work for folks on parental leave, as you may earn up to 25 percent of your weekly EI benefit without having anything deducted. Unfortunately UBC does not permit paid part-time work while on parental leave, despite the government policy, so it is dependent on your institution regulations. I was able to work it out with my supervisor that I would put in those days and when I returned to work I would start at four days per week until the time was made up in lieu. I was extremely motivated to keep my foot in the door at the lab, it was completely my choice, and I believe it made my transition back to full time work easier for myself and my family, as well as for the lab. Leaving the kids at home is a whole other kind of struggle, but I was on my way to finding a balance.

Erika: Having a baby doesn’t just impact your productivity for the duration of your parental leave. Every pregnancy is different and researcher activities differ widely. For example, I am a biologist who does both lab and field work that can involve dangerous chemicals and heavy lifting. I also had a high-risk pregnancy, was extremely ill during my first trimester and was on periodic bed rest in the second and third trimester. When I got pregnant I essentially stopped all lab work and only did very light field work on a couple of occasions. Instead, I focused on data analysis and writing manuscripts. I managed to submit four manuscripts while I was pregnant, which meant that I had four papers come out while I was on mat leave (making it look like I was still “productive” during that time).

Before I had my son, I had big plans to continue working on manuscripts in the evening once he was asleep, do data analysis during naps, catch up on reading papers while breastfeeding. Yahhhh…not so much! My son was not a good sleeper and I was up with him three to four times a night until he was over nine months-old. That being said, science doesn’t stop just because you are on maternity leave. I did manage to edit manuscripts from co-authors, submit revisions for manuscripts and even apply for a couple jobs. My philosophy was to turn down all reviewer requests and only focus on very important, time sensitive tasks. I decided to return to work two days a week once my son was 10 months-old in order to ease back into research. I really missed science and was just itching to get back into the swing of things. I’m really glad I did that because it gave me some extra flexibility for the first couple months once I returned to work full-time.

Other parents have different experiences entirely. Some babies sleep through the night by eight weeks and take 2.5 hour naps twice a day, so you may still be able to do a bit of work. Other babies may wake every hour for months on end. Some babies get sick and you may end up taking frequent, terrifying trips to the hospital. Again, you can’t predict how things will go for you. Just do your best and try to enjoy this time.

Our wish list – give support to postdocs taking leave.

  • Permit postdocs the choice to work part time. This allows them to add to their salary, to keep in contact with the lab, and to remain productive if they are interested in doing so. It may also be particularly useful in research professions where experiments, grant cycles and manuscript submissions may stretch on for months and may overlap with leave time.
  • Universities should offer some dedicated paternity leave – as in Quebec where five weeks are available – such that men may partake in the benefits of being at home with their brand new babies, and that taking leave for family reasons becomes less of a gender-specific issue. (Point of clarification: Maternity leave = 17 weeks of paid leave for new mothers; Parental leave = 35 weeks of paid leave for new parents that can be taken by either the mother or the father; Paternity leave = suggested period for new fathers to be taken shortly after babies are born).
  • Set up supportive IT services to permit postdocs to access data and libraries remotely. Note that Elsevier provides postdocs free access to books and journals on ScienceDirect for up to six months, which could be useful for postdocs on parental leave who are also between positions.
  • The creation of an Ombudsman would be helpful for mediating difficulties with individual lab policies regarding project allocations, and other circumstance-specific difficulties for postdocs and graduate students who take parental leave.

Things that worked for us:

  • Love it or hate it, productivity is primarily measured by publications and secondarily by conference presentations/invited presentations. Before you go on parental leave, submit as many manuscripts as possible. Offer to give guest lectures and departmental seminars.
  • Collaborate with people who will continue working with minor input from you while you are busy incubating and raising your baby.
  • Try to generate a backlog of data that is ready to be written up once you get pregnant, or when you return to work. This can help sustain you while you get new experiments started, plan field work etc…
  • Surround yourself with supportive, family-friendly people.
  • Find other parents who are in a similar situation. You need all the support and understanding you can get, especially during those early months.
  • Keep your expectations in check. Other parents can be particularly useful with feedback in this regard. It is very difficult to predict how much and what kind of work you will be able to do once you are pregnant or you have a happy / colicky / good sleeping / terrible sleeping / multiple-baby family at home!
  • Participate as much as you comfortably can, both in your work life and in your new parent life – there is much to be gained from both experiences, and they will impact each other.

What do readers think? Share your tips and ideas for supporting postdocs in the comment section below…

Forget about impact factors – the revolution is upon us!

Posted on June 4, 2014 by

Publication in high impact journals often drives both the experiments and the career trajectory of early career researchers. Hardly a day goes by in the lab without somebody lamenting the peer review system or the latest rejection (or acceptance!) in Cell, Science or Nature. It is the source of much consternation and last week the University of Cambridge’s Graduate Student and Postdoc Forum (GRASP) hosted an evening discussion to try and identify a way forward for young researchers to help change the system.

The evening started with Ms. Jennifer McLennan, head of marketing and communications at eLife Sciences, who spoke about how eLife is trying to revolutionize the publishing process. The eLife Sciences journal is a not-for-profit open-access journal funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Wellcome Trust, and Max Planck Society. It aims to dramatically restructure the way science is published. The eLife journal represents an unprecedented collaboration of funders hoping to inspire change throughout the publishing industry by providing a new model of publishing, that makes it more efficient, incorporates digital media, and provides open access to the top, most outstanding research. Essentially, their aim is to be the Science or Nature of open-access publishing.

The evening continued with enthusiastic, often highly critical, commentary from Professor Steve Russell and Professor Alfonso Martinez-Arias, both from the department of genetics at the University of Cambridge. Both professors brought years of experience to the table and demonstrated a clear concern for the next generation of scientists. Whilst it was quite evident from the discussion that eLife is an improvement over traditional for-profit journals, it was also clear that it represents a band-aid, not a long-term solution.

A peer review system to emulate

Perhaps eLife’s single biggest contribution, is its streamlined submission and review process, which saves enormous amounts of time that could be better spent on research. They also use an ingenious model of peer-review that encourages dialogue between reviewers and provides the author with a unified response, avoiding contradictions and confusion. As Professor Alfonso Martinez-Arias said “the eLife reviewing process is something every journal should adopt.”

However, the big question is whether or not eLife is really offering a new paradigm of publishing as they claim. Currently, they have a 75 percent rejection rate, not dissimilar to Nature and Science. Whilst they aim to publish only the most important research advances, it remains elusive as to what constitutes “quality” or “outstanding” research. As Professor Russell repeatedly insisted, it is an absolute travesty to have such a small fraction of people decide what gets published. It means “careers are being decided by a tiny tiny tiny fraction of the scientific community.” He continued, “these decisions should not be made by journal editors, they should be decided by the larger scientific community.”

Is where you publish as big a deal as we think?

The surprising twist that came out of the evening discussion was that, according to Professor Martinez-Arias, early career researchers may be fooling themselves into thinking publishing in top journals is required for a successful career in academia. The obsession with publishing in journals with the highest impact factor clouds the importance of other factors which Professor Martinez-Arias stressed are strongly considered by tenure review panels and hiring panels. He asked the room of PhD students and postdocs, “What gets you a postdoc or a job in academia?” Although publications were the first to be mentioned, the overwhelming majority acknowledged that actually it was your references, where you studied, and who you worked with, which had an even greater influence on your job prospects. Professor Martinez-Arias continued, “You are fooling yourself if you think publishing in top journals will get you the job”.

It’s up to young scientists to change the system

The final big take home message was that it is up to young scientists to change the way science is communicated. Professor Martinez-Arias repeated this refrain, telling young researchers “You are the future. It is up to you to shape this.” Many people feel that it is too risky for young scholars to speak up and try to change the rules of publishing, and that we should expect the senior scientists who have already established successful careers to initiate changes, but perhaps that isn’t necessary. Young scientists should focus on doing the best quality research they can, foster positive relationships with supervisors and mentors, publish in journals with policies that are trying to move the publishing system forward, start using online archives (such as  bioRxiv), and not be afraid to speak up about archaic policies that are impeding scientific progress.

The public scientist

Posted on May 20, 2014 by

I was recently invited to give a keynote address at the Human Disease Mapping conference at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland that was fully coordinated by a small group of the college’s PhD students and postdoctoral fellows. The scope was to share my experience and story of my academic career in a period where the global financial and humanitarian crisis is affecting young scientists’ hopes of doing what they love most – science.

 Given its length, I have divided the original talk into multiple posts.

 To read the previous articles in this series please visit the links below:


Figure 6: Click on image to enlarge

There is a lot to be said for the public scientist or – more broadly – the public intellectual. If we believe ours is a social function, to improve human health and knowledge through discovery, our education and training requires that we share our informed perspective with others. The fact that most of us are supported almost exclusively by taxpayer dollars demands it. We are elevated by our peers and given the freedom to pursue rigorous academic training through publically-subsidized undergraduate, graduate and fellowship programs so that we can use that knowledge to elevate our peers in turn; this is the primary role of academia. Who is better positioned to comment publically on issues relating to science, technology, education and policy than us? Unfortunately, this is where most of us drop the ball.

For some reason the professionalization of academia, and increased specialization of the research scientist has led us to reward exclusively those who tailor their work to others in their field rather than to audiences beyond it. Worse still is the assumption that given our respective specialist training, no one of us is particularly qualified to speak with any great authority on issues outside of our narrow specialty. This academic subculture promotes the false assumption that communication with non-specialist audience means “dumbing down” the message, and the elitist dismissal of the communicator’s self-proclaimed importance by other scientists who should themselves be contributing their expertise to the issues being discussed.


The fallout from this self-censorship by the scientific community has been disastrous for us:

  • A 2012 Gallup poll shows that in the United States a whopping 46 percent of Americans still believe in creationism – a percentage that has all but remained static in the last 30 years!

Figure 7: Click on image to enlarge

  • Hitting closer to home, indiscriminate cuts to basic research – in the U.S. nearly $1.6 billion – and resulting grant funding rates on the order of ~15 percent are significantly jeopardizing future research in biomedical science

Figure 8: Click on image to enlarge

Figure 9: Click on image to enlarge

In Canada we have not had in recent memory a Minister of State (Industry, Science and Technology) with a graduate degree in science, and there are few politicians worldwide with strong science qualifications.

Instead of investing in only the few world experts on a topic the wherewithal (job security, international recognition, seniority etc.) to speak publically on socially-relevant issues, we should open up the podium to the rest of us with an educated perspective on the topic as well. Scientists in general should be empowered to speak on issues of science and technology, as we have – by our training – relevant knowledge just above that of the average layperson.

Specialist training of the narrowest focus is oftentimes not needed to translate the fundamental issues being discussed at the societal level. This is true for all of the other specialties we train, and is ultimately the purpose of our taxpayer-funded higher education system. Consider that more than 99 percent of the world’s population does not hold a PhD degree, and fewer still hold a PhD in science/technology/political science. You are the 1 percent most qualified to provide the educated perspective. And while there will almost certainly be some backlash; the purpose is to change the status quo. Academe has never formally elected public scientists from our ranks, and the alternative to lending your perspective to public issues is to allow uninformed opinion to direct societal decisions. It is precisely you who the world is looking at to translate basic research and comment on science policy. Let this be your invitation.

Figure 10: Click on image to enlarge

Without you, this increasing body of knowledge – the scientific frontier that you can hardly keep up with – is all but inaccessible to the very people who are paying for it, and especially to the larger world who can’t afford to. I may have entertained objections to this idea pre-Wikipedia, tweets, Facebook likes, and Google +1’s, but certainly not in the connected social media world we now live in. In this age, each one of us has a duty to assume the role of public intellectual. As in science, each new voice helps direct the choir and brings us into harmony.

I should probably repeat: I am not trying to talk anyone out of an academic research career – academics are needed. The question for you is: why stop there when there is so much more you can do? Then, after you have created for yourself options that offer a higher salary, greater job security, a better standard of living, and the ability to make a more immediate difference in the world, choose how you want to practice science – knowing that if you are ever unhappy with your decision, the shear amount of overlap between professions means that you can always switch tracks.

The world is your oyster.

Really scraping the bottom… can’t we at least get parental leave during a postdoc?

Posted on May 12, 2014 by

Editor’s Note: Today the Black Hole continues its series of posts dedicated to postdoctoral fellows with kids. Two current postdoctoral fellows (Jenn and Erika) who have recently had children whilst pursing science at the very highest levels have kindly agreed to share their experiences. We are really excited to be able to provide them a forum that will hopefully stimulate some changes in how we can do a better job of supporting the offspring of our best and brightest. Today’s post urges granting agencies and universities to guarantee paid parental leave for its fellows.

Paid parental leave is absolutely essential if we want to retain the best and brightest minds in academia.

Paid parental leave is the bare minimum of what should be provided for highly trained researchers with PhDs and it has instead become one of the hot button issues for early career researchers. One of the most stressful aspects of being a postdoctoral fellow is the lack of security and the financial instability. This can be absolutely crippling once you introduce babies into the mix. Postdocs tend to survive on short term contracts, fellowships or grants and are often frantically trying to figure out where next year’s paycheck will come from.

A repeated refrain here at the Black Hole is that postdoctoral status in Canada is notoriously uncertain. Are we students? Trainees? Employees? This lack of defined status has immediate downstream effects on our ability to secure paid parental leave and the consequences are that bright young researchers throw in the towel on an academic career.

So how does parental leave currently work for postdoctoral fellows? In Canada, postdocs tend to be supported either by fellowships or paid directly from a supervisor’s grant. Your ability to receive paid parental leave will depend on 1) how you are paid and 2) where you work.

1) Type of pay:

a) Fellowship (e.g. NSERC, CIHR, SSHRC): If you are supported by a government fellowship, then you are entitled to interrupt your award and take unpaid parental leave for up to three years. Note that you cannot work or pursue studies during your leave and you must be devoted full time to child-rearing. You can apply for paid leave for a maximum of four months if funded by NSERC or SSHRC, or six months at CIHR, but this is subject to the availability of funds. But what about employment insurance (EI)? Most Canadians who are employed full-time are eligible for a full year of paid parental leave through EI. Note that most NSERC postdocs receive a T4A which means that they do not pay into the Canada Pension Plan or EI (though they do pay income tax). Since they are unable to pay into EI, postdocs on a fellowship cannot receive parental benefits through EI.

b) Fellowship (external agency): It depends on the individual fellowship. Many externally funded fellowships do not provide a paid parental leave. In this case, these fellowship postdocs do not qualify for EI (they receive a T4A) and will get ZERO paid leave unless the educational institutions provide an additional mechanism for support; see below. Refer to Jenn’s story about this last week.

c) Supervisor grant: If you are paid from a supervisor’s grant, then hopefully you are issued a T4 which allows you to pay into EI. This would permit you, as long as you meet the requirements, to take a full year of paid leave (at 55 percent of your salary). If you are not paid on a T4, you might want to start asking “why not” (though readers should be aware of the consequences of reclassification!)

2) Location:

a) Parent-friendly Canadian universities: Some Canadian universities have passed rules that require a paid parental leave be available for all postdocs. For example, all postdocs employed by UBC, regardless of how they are paid, receive six months of parental leave topped up to 95 percent of their salary. Postdocs who pay into EI can then collect 55 percent of their salary for the remaining six months of the year (fellowship postdocs cannot since they don’t pay into EI – see above). Note that postdoc salaries that are administered through non-university affiliations (e.g. the provincial health authority) are often not covered by these university policies. So be sure you know how and where you get paid!

b) Parent-UNfriendly Canadian universities: Other Canadian universities research institutes do not have set policies, in which case postdocs are on their own to figure it out.

(Editor’s note: we will not name and shame individual universities here, but would ask readers to explore their university’s policies and practices – feel free to comment below though!)

c) Non-Canadian universities: What about postdocs affiliated with universities overseas? Good luck. Do your research, figure out your options. A key thing to remember is that if you officially leave Canada (i.e. file with the government, cancel your provincial health coverage) it takes three months after you return to Canada to re-instate your coverage to become eligible to receive full standard healthcare again. So make sure you plan accordingly!

Wish list

Want to keep women in science? Want to allow men to be equal partners in parenting? Guarantee a full year of paid parental leave!

  • Treat all postdocs like employees, let us pay into EI and CPP.  Many countries do this.
  • Government fellowships need to provide a full year of paid leave instead of four to six months.
  • ALL fellowships should come with benefits. It’s a disgrace for postdocs to earn a prestigious fellowship only to discover that they will not be entitled to a paid parental leave. Many women planning to have a family will not be able to apply for “prestigious” fellowships as they won’t be able to take a paid leave, putting them at a disadvantage.
  • Increase postdoc salaries from the Canadian average (over two thirds of Canadian postdocs earn less than $45,000) to a level that will allow a family to survive.

Share your story

Erika and Jenn have shared their stories about the challenges associated with obtaining paid maternity leave as a postdoc. We are looking for feedback and more stories – did you experience something similar? Have you found yourself in an altogether different scenario? Let us know in the comments below. We will touch on these and other issues in future posts.

Postdoctoral Parent Series: Plans gone awry…

Posted on May 5, 2014 by

Editor’s Note: Today the Black Hole is delighted to launch a short series of posts dedicated to postdoctoral fellows with kids. Two current postdoctoral fellows (Jenn and Erika) who have recently had children whilst pursing science at the very highest levels have kindly agreed to share their experiences. We are really excited to be able to provide them a forum that will hopefully stimulate some changes in how we can do a better job of supporting the offspring of our best and brightest. We begin with introductions to Jenn and Erika and will continue over the coming weeks with their thoughts on what can be done.

Jenn’s story:

I was 32 when I defended, and I knew that I didn’t want to wait to undertake postdoctoral fellowship position (or two!) before having kids. I felt I needed some additional elements in place as well, including family and friend support, so I strategized and decided to stay in Vancouver for my first postdoc. I also joined a lab with a supervisor who has a young family of his own, and I outlined a fundable project for which I had even earmarked parts that I could work on while home on maternity leave. My new project evolved nicely from my previous work and despite staying at the same institution I managed to get a two year fellowship award for the project.

The first sign of a hiccup in my “plan” came just two months into pregnancy – TWINS! Was that the sound of my career flushing away?? The thought of finding & paying for double daycare alone sent me into a panic. How would I possibly get any work done while on maternity leave? What about returning to work? The whole “I’m going to have a baby” plan was precariously balanced, and it felt like one baby was going to be hard enough to pull off. There were some pretty tough moments and it took a little while before my husband and I shifted from the “overwhelmed” camp to the “we are lucky & overjoyed” camp!

One such tough moment was realizing, as many Black Hole readers know, that in Canada there are two kinds of postdocs – grant-funded and fellowship funded. Those of us on fellowships are not allowed to pay into the EI & CPP federal social programs, thereby making us ineligible to receive them. At the time the rules were also such that because I couldn’t get EI, I couldn’t qualify for UBC’s generous parental leave salary top-up support program, and would have literally no salary support for a leave once my children were born. Both my former supervisor for my PhD and my new postdoc supervisor were equally appalled at my predicament, and they stepped up in a way that I am so grateful for. They helped arrange with the granting agency to delay the start of my fellowship until a year after the birth of my twins and they created a new position so they could both contribute to pay me from their grants until my kids were born so that I could qualify for EI & UBC benefits. The only cost to me was spending a year unfunded by fellowship, and staying in this postdoc position an additional year. This was also one of the first signs that having twins was a very positive thing, as this arrangement wouldn’t work a second time, so we may not have been able to have a second child.

Being away from the lab for a whole year was tough but not as tough as I had imagined. Coming back to work was great, but the reality is that things have changed substantially for me, so my whole approach to work has had to adapt. It took about a year before I really felt back to myself with respect to focus and productivity. And now that I’m completing my postdoc it is time to try and make plans for the future.

Erika’s story:

I spent the morning before my PhD defense with my head in a toilet. No, not from nerves (though they probably didn’t help the situation), but from morning sickness – I was 2 months pregnant. My husband and I meticulously planned having a baby. I received an NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowship while in the final year of my PhD in 2011 and my plan was to do a quick postdoc at UBC for six months to finish up a few side projects from my PhD research while I was pregnant and then defer my NSERC PDF for maternity leave.

Those plans went completely out the window when tragedy struck. When I was 5 months pregnant I went into preterm labor and we lost our little girl. We were devastated.

With our lives turned completely upside down, we had some decisions to make, and quick. My (very supportive) husband quit his lucrative job and we headed to the University of Sydney in Australia, surviving off my fellowship and our savings. My status while in Australia was as a “visiting scientist” and I had to pay for my own healthcare insurance. We were in Australia for seven months and then came home to Vancouver once I was pregnant again because my pregnancy was high risk and I needed excellent (i.e., cheap!) healthcare.

Unable to do field or lab work, I worked on data analysis and manuscripts while I was pregnant and put my NSERC PDF on hold once I had completed the first year. Our beautiful boy was born in April 2013. I took my four month paid maternity leave and stayed off for one full year total. Luckily, my husband quickly found a job in Vancouver and has been able to support the family with the help of our savings.

I recently resumed year two of my fellowship with a new supervisor in Canada so we could stay in Vancouver (where we have lots of family support + my husband could keep his good job). We do want another baby and I have no idea how we are going to swing it. My NSERC PDF will be up fairly soon and I have no idea where my next paycheck will come from. Hopefully I can acquire 600 hours of EI-eligible work before we have another baby so I can have a full year of paid maternity leave (see upcoming post). To be continued!

In upcoming instalments we will tell you more about the logistics of postdocs getting paid parental leave in Canada, about re-entry into work at the lab after being away for a year, and we will share some thoughts about how having a family has impacted our thoughts about our futures in this profession.

Defining the role of the scientific activist

Posted on April 28, 2014 by

I was recently invited to give a keynote address at the Human Disease Mapping conference at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland that was fully coordinated by a small group of the college’s PhD students and postdoctoral fellows. The scope was to share my experience and story of my academic career in a period where the global financial and humanitarian crisis is affecting young scientists’ hopes of doing what they love most – science.

Given its length, I have divided the original talk into multiple posts.

To read the previous articles in this series please visit the links below:


Still another very lucrative career option is media. Science communication is of major importance and opens the door to politics, which as a society we desperately need scientists to transition into.

Both of my early companies operate in this space, providing scientific consulting for film and television, and arming potential investors with critical insight into the pipelines of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies they are eyeing for investment. Even this blog, which I maintain with Dave for the purpose of social enterprise, draws income, and there are examples on the University Affairs website of university professors who have left their tenure-track appointments to become professional bloggers when they realized the salary they were drawing through their blogs was higher than what they were seeing through their academic appointment. There is, of course, journalist, editor, illustrator, television, radio, podcast, and advertising to consider as well.

You’ll laugh, but a colleague of mine was being paid a six-figure salary to research drug names and come up with new branding for pharmaceutical products, for which they exclusively hire research scientists.

Members of Parliament also do very well, and you are in a position to effect even greater change there than you would through purely academic pursuits. There is, of course, no reason why Prime Minister shouldn’t be on that list as well. Science is increasingly becoming integrated into our social fabric and experts are required at all levels to transform the potential of new perspectives, approaches, and discoveries into true social gains.

Defining Roles

One thing that has always surprised me is that scientists are, as a general rule, perfectly content resigning themselves to generating ideas, publishing the landmark paper validating the technology, leveraging this technology to ask for a small amount of money, lathering, rinsing and repeating. Business, by comparison, has resigned itself to seeking out great ideas, turning them into a practical product, using them to generate a lot more money, lathering rinsing and repeating.

Figure 5: Click on image to enlarge

My question is, if the skillset is the same, why stop here? Especially when the income generated at the tail end can be fed back to support your own research program. Universities already do this by retaining rights to your intellectual property and licensing it to third party companies for profit. Why shouldn’t you reclaim your intellectual property and do the same? Besides, who better to develop the technology and apply it, than the very scientists who generated it? This doesn’t only pertain to profit, but value as a whole. What good are scientific advancements that no one hears about? Why should a society continue to support science they cannot relate to or understand?

These last two questions will comprise my upcoming final post of the series.