This Thursday, I’ll be attending the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Toronto to run a session on the training the next generation of scientists. The session promises to be discussion-based and I hope that some practical ideas and solutions will be proposed by audience members and panelists to help address what I consider to be one of the greatest wastes of human capital in our country.
The results of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS) survey will launch the panel highlighting the real need for new policy solutions to address the ever-increasing numbers of science-based trainees being spun out of Canadian universities and research institutes. This human resource crisis stimulated the formation of CAPS and numerous other international groups of early career researchers (e.g., the NPA in the United States, and ICoRSA for international research staff). The panel brings together stakeholders in industry, government and academia to discuss the needs of each sector and strategies for Canada to adopt in order to come out ahead in its training and utilization of young scientists.
I’ve compiled a list of relevant posts by Jonathan and I that try to tackle some of these issues and propose solutions and I hope this will act as fodder for conference-goers to get the discussion rolling. Post-conference I’ll relay to readers who could not attend the key ideas that emerged with the intention of building consensus on the best ideas that granting agencies, universities and employers could adopt:
- Sick of studenthood, early career researchers want employee status
- Half of Canada’s early career researchers are not Canadian
- Attracting and retaining talented researchers
- Reversing the brain drain
- Too much Talent? SSHRC’s “solution” to the postdoc boom
- The PhD Placement Project
- Incredible promotion tool: student and postdoc outcomes
- Tri-Councils should learn from EMBO fellowships
- Postdoctoral mentors and a regular reality check
- Shorter PhDs and more active thesis committees
- Fewer postdocs with higher salaries? Hold your horses!
- Planning Ahead: How many of you are there and who will pay you?
- A paradigm shift in academic advancement
- Creating scientists, not science, is the key to productive universities
Science training will not magically fix itself – it’s up to young scientists to identify the challenges and help to address them. The most important product of a university is people and these people will go out into every sector of society to help improve our collective future.
- I’ll also partake in a panel on the value of science blogging in Canada on Friday. Hopefully this session will highlight the utility and meaningfulness of scientists picking up the proverbial pen and paper to get their thoughts and opinions out into the world.
The recent Jumpstart Our Business Act, which U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law in March, allows crowdfunding to be used to sell shares to the public. While there are strict limits to how much “unsophisticated investors” will be allowed to commit to a single company, companies will be able to sell shares to individual investors without having to go through a public offering. Since laboratories in academic research settings such as hospitals and universities represent private companies, why not apply a crowdfunding model to academic science?
I have long ventured that the public’s apathy to most of the research taking place on their behalf results not from a lack of interest, but a failure of scientists to properly communicate their goals and findings; and a recent string of successful applications of this model to basic research projects appear to support my view that crowdfunding science works (see here and here).
While federal institutes such as the National Institutes of Health in the United States and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in Canada already provide baseline financial support for academic research programs through a multitude of publicly funded grants, the mechanism through which finding decisions are made – 12-page research proposals, career development addendums, consortium-contractual arrangement documentation, peer-review committees, etc. – do more to disconnect the lay public from the investment decisions being made on their behalf than engage them in the world-changing scientific advances they are actively helping support.
Moreover, while academic research programs are meant to tackle the unknown for the sake of making significant strides in our understanding of the natural world, present economic circumstances have forced federal funding agencies to shy away from high-risk/high-gain ventures in light of “safer” investments that mostly fill in the gaps between major research discoveries and are best left to private companies which are inevitably more risk-averse.
To strengthen the relationships between science and society, I propose the creation of a national crowdfunding website by the major federal research institutes where academic researchers can post their more risky research proposals. Briefly, principal investigators or academic departments apply to a partner at the NIH, CIHR or equivalent to request a grant for a high-risk/high-gain research program not already being actively supported by a federal or private grant:
- Inclusion in the program would be based on the applicant’s background and appointment, institutional support, and track record, protecting potential investors from postings from researchers without the necessary infrastructure or experience to follow through on their research proposals.
- Research proposals will be outlined as follows, with each section limited in length and scope. Descriptions of the principal investigator and the research environment will be available for every proposal:
- Gaps in our Understanding
- Research Strategy/Approach
- Potential Problems and Solutions
- Relevance to public health
While proposals will be structured very much like current grant applications, their success will be based mostly on their ability to attract investors, translate the research question into commonly-understood parables, and contextualize its importance in a manner that is understood by the lay public.
- Research proposals will be reviewed by an editorial team of general scientific professionals to ensure profiles are clear, that ‘Significance’ and ‘Background’ are not grossly misrepresented, ‘Hypotheses’ are appropriate and ‘Research Strategies/Approaches’ are not intrinsically flawed. The purpose of this review is not to be academically rigorous, but to ensure proposals adhere to principles of scientific integrity so that investors are able to make fair and informed decisions. Issues relating to missing, incorrect, or inconsistent information will be flagged and investigators will be permitted to revise their applications before publication (think Wikipedia revision control).
- Project funding goals and deadlines will be set by the principal investigator in collaboration with the crowdfunding resource. During the lifetime of a research proposal people are free to fund the project, and it will be the responsibility of the principal investigator to advertise their research program. The crowdfunding resource will retain the right to promote certain research proposals that the institute feels is a particularly paradigm-shifting project with a high likelihood of success. Likewise, academic scientists will be encouraged to register to the site and permitted to rate the application. This will provide the lay public with a litmus test of how professionals feel about the current application.
- If the project succeeds in reaching its funding goal, all donations will be processed; if the project falls short of its funding goal, no one will be charged. This all-or-nothing funding protects investors from supporting projects that, due to fundraising constraints, cannot be realized. The crowfunding site Kickstarter has proven this system works; with projects either making their goal or finding little support. Statistics from kickstarter have shown that 82% of projects that reach 20% of their funding goal, and 98% of projects that reach 60% of their funding goal are successfully funded.
- Individuals funding research programs through this crowdfunding resource will be included in the acknowledgements section and receive a copy of the published manuscript. Publication fees should be included in the budget.
- Individuals funding research programs will be included as shareholders for profitable patents resulting from the research they helped support. Shares will be proportional to investment, and profits resulting from the patented research will be returned to the crowdfunding site (minus an administrative overhead for the crowdfunding program) for reinvestment in other research proposals at the discretion of the investor.
My last post generated a fair amount of commentary both here on this site and on Reddit. It seems that many people have experienced exactly what NIH Director Francis Collins described: they’ve been made to feel like failures for leaving academia. If the vast majority of PhDs and postdoctoral fellows will not become tenure-track academics, then we should be embracing non-academic careers as the default pathway for most trainees. This requires a huge cultural shift away from seeing trainees as generators of science and toward viewing trainees themselves as the product. Making supervisors and institutes accountable for the trainees they produce, keeping lab sizes down to a size where meaningful mentorship can be maintained, and recognizing the value of non-academic careers are all key to making this shift successfully.
Tracking former students and postdocs in a meaningful way
A recent phenomenon at granting agencies has been to track the outcomes of students and postdocs, both in terms of how long they are in the lab as well as what they are currently doing for a job. A big question that spawns from this is whether particular professions or outcomes are more or less valued? If so, who decides if it’s more valuable to create a PhD-level patent lawyer vs. a sessional instructor vs. a professor? I am not sure how this information is used and I worry that it is simply to ask the question “How good is this professor at creating new professors?”
As I mentioned in my last post, the product of a university should, above all else, be its people. We consistently fail this goal by nearly exclusively valuing the production of papers and patents irrespective of what happens to the trainees involved in producing them. Instead we should be measuring a successful research PI by evaluating – in a meaningful fashion – their training and teaching abilities.
Bigger is not always better
One of the most frustrating things about measuring the “productivity” or “success” of a lab is that it is almost always done as a cumulative exercise. Rarely do you ask the question, “What is this professor’s productivity per lab member?” Not too long ago, there was an eye-opening study that showed research productivity plateaued at $750,000 of research funding and got noticeably worse as funding went up (as measured by number of publications and their average impact factor). Even this, though, did not break down the production per person, though it can be reasonably assumed that better funded labs have more people.
Big labs produce more papers, that’s very true – but how many careers are buried in the wake of such “productivity”? It would do grant evaluators well to ask how many trainees and employees does each lab have and how is the lab’s publication record distributed over those people. Anecdotally, I can cite several examples of small labs with excellent productivity that get crushed in grant evaluations for having a thin publication record – a “publication per lab researcher” metric would do such labs a great service and push the heads of larger labs to ensure that everyone in their group is being taken care of properly.
Seeing the forest for the trees and the Selfish Gene
On the note of taking care of one’s trainees, I fail to understand why professors don’t see “non-academic” career options as valuable to them. Yes, professors can have tunnel vision when it comes to doing things that benefit their lab moving forward, but surely minting new academics is not the only way to have a positive working relationship with your former trainees.
If you produce a journal editor, might thaey not end up working at a journal in your field? Would you rather have them respect the lab for the way it is run and the science that emerges from it or that they be bitter about their final few months/years and be spreading bad vibes throughout their new circles?
If you produce an industry researcher, might they not end up working for a company in your field? Good relationships with companies have often sprouted collaborations that benefits both the academic and industrial partners both through shared reagents, shared expertise, and good product development opportunities. Even the most selfish professors should be able to see this logic and be keen to have students of all career motivations leave their labs as happy as possible.
Changing the perception
I have long wondered whether people are better motivated by negative or positive reinforcement. Should we reward those professors that invest in training students and postdocs with diverse career goals or should we penalize those that neglect their university duties? As it currently stands, there does not appear to be much reward for those who invest in training and teaching and there appears to be a sizable cohort of professors who are not well-liked by their trainees.
I suggest measuring output based on all the trainees that pass through a lab by noting where they go and how well they were supported and I would also incorporate productivity per researcher into evaluation metrics. Such measures would stimulate professors to consider carefully those that they take on board and I believe would bring down overall lab size of large labs and increase the productivity per research dollar.
Over the years, our site has had many articles on two major themes: the education and training of scientists, and the effective transfer of knowledge between academic science and other sectors (e.g., industry, policy, science outreach).
Last week, Nature published a short interview with NIH Director Francis Collins concerning the policies being adopted to improve the training situation in biomedical sciences. Briefly, postdoc stipends will be increased along with the number of grants that encourage early career independence, and funding will be made available for training programs that prepare students for a broader set of career options. These are all welcome changes, of course, but I fear the problem of communication between sectors will remain unsolved unless trainees and educators fundamentally shift the way they view “non-academic” careers.
After admitting to not exposing his own trainees to multiple career options, Collins highlights the problem that I will spend the remainder of the article speaking to:
I worry that a number of them (postdocs) are receiving the message that if they don’t get a tenure-track position, they have failed. The good news is that nearly all postdocs are likely to be employed in interesting positions, but many will not travel a narrow academic path.
This is where the human element comes into play. Postdoctoral fellows are generally clever and successful people; they’ve finished at or near the top of their classes in high school and university and clearly like asking questions about things that have yet to be answered. The difficult disconnect comes when, for the first time in many of these people’s lives, they are being told, “No, sorry, you’re not good enough to go down that path, just go figure something else out.”
Many people will counter with arguments about huge swathes of postdocs who actually do not want to have a tenure track position. While data are being collected on this, the relationship that these postdocs have with academic science remains problematic. Observing and competing with the ambitious few who make it, it is reinforced over and over that these young scholars are not good enough to be at the top. This is completely and utterly appalling – it is a damaging cycle and it is sapping the motivation of our best and brightest.
The real problem comes when the majority (Collins quotes greater than 75%) of these people obtain non-tenure track jobs. Just like all the nasty emotions that flare up when you are rejected in a relationship, science leaves the bitter taste of failure and the defensive walls get built up. Is it possible that such walls are still intact when it comes to dealing with academics in future positions? I have visions of disgruntled former academic postdocs (getting more disgruntled as the human resource crisis escalates) being in science policy and industry positions and making the gap between governments, industry and academia grow even larger. We need to find ways to support the choices of trainees earlier and resist the demonization of non-academic career choices.
Research labs at universities should be places of training, not small businesses. Having a skilled worker move on to something else is potentially bad for business, but should be seen as an excellent end product for a university.
I am certainly not advocating for the pampering of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, but there are several approaches that I will propose in my next post to take better advantage of the huge investment that we make in the training of these young scholars. Career training programs like those the NIH will support are a good step, but until postdoctoral fellows stop flying under the radar of their supervisor when they partake in such programs, we’ll still be constructing walls that will need to be torn down later.
Further underscoring the acute strain on human resources in academic circles, Elsevier has just announced a unique program to help out researchers who find themselves in between positions (thanks for the heads up C!). While many parents are no doubt crying about how their clever child with a PhD bounces from one short-term contract to the next, this is actually good news for those who find themselves trapped by funny employment rules, grants that have expired, or other circumstances that prohibit their normally institutionally supplied access to scientific papers.
The announcement can be found here, but note the deadline: December 15, so get moving! You’ll need a letter from your previous employer too, so that makes it a little tougher.
A bright spot?
I am encouraged that groups like the NIH and NAS are writing about the human resources crisis and that Elsevier, normally famous for its costly subscriptions, has made some effort to help out those finding themselves on the outside looking in. However, it is simply not enough – the system needs a major overhaul and academics need to work from within their respective systems to make the changes happen.
In this, our last post of 2012, I want to highlight a few key issues that we will tackle in 2013 but also encourage those who feel passionately about specific aspects of the system to get in touch as guest bloggers. We’ve had wonderful posts from people in the past on specific issues that were far more effective than Jonathan or I writing them (Banting award critique, moving labs with your CIHR fellowship, choosing whether or not to do an MD/PhD or PDF) because the people writing were intimately involved in the issue/decision. We want the Black Hole to be a place where ideas can be discussed and, most importantly, solutions proposed.
In 2013, we will tackle, amongst others, the following topics:
- Utility of career development awards for senior postdocs
- Making the choice to leave or stay in academic science
- Women in science
- New metrics for evaluating scientists
- Strategies to manage the increasing workforce
Finally, I hope that the Christmas break will result in the launch of our more interactive archive of our material and resources from the past. Watch out for it on scienceadvocacy.org.
Until then, we’ll see you all back here on January 2. Of course, Jonathan and I will still be squirrelling away at posts and ideas so please do not hesitate to contact us at any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This past weekend, I attended the inaugural meeting of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Administrators in Ottawa. As with most inaugural meetings, there was a combination of excitement and confusion but it appeared that the overall theme was one of identifying common ground and working together in the most productive way possible.
The stated aims of CAPA are to share best practices and to promote the environment for successful postdoctoral scholarship and training. The organization is made up of senior administrators and staff from universities and research organizations across Canada that focus on postdoctoral fellow issues. The steering committee currently comprises David Burns (UNB), Graham Carr (Concordia), Richard Fedorak (U of Alberta), Mihaela Harmos (Western), Sue Horton (Waterloo), Martin Kreiswirth (McGill), and Marilyn Mooibroek (Calgary). While not formally involved in the steering committee, postdoctoral fellows are consulted through the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars via guest status at teleconferences.
Many interesting items arose in the meeting and it would be hard to properly include them all, so I will restrict myself to some of the items that I found most interesting (all topics are found here, please write me if you would like more information):
Survey of stakeholders
Mihaela Harmos presented the results from 34/50 respondents to the stakeholder survey run in 2011. There are apparently 8,900 postdoctoral fellows in Canada, 45% of whom are not originally from Canada. Only half of these postdocs have minimum stipends and just 2/3 have some sort of benefits package available to them. Of these, approximately 25% pay for 100% of their benefits. Does such inconsistency exist for other professionals in training (e.g., accountants, lawyers, medical doctors)? Readers will know our opinion on this already.
In any event, such surveys will be interesting to monitor in the future to track changes in the quantity and quality of postdoctoral research support in Canada.
Legal status of postdoctoral fellows
We had an informative presentation by Lisa Newton, a lawyer based at Queen’s University, who shared some important points about the legal status of postdoctoral fellows. A major case came out of U of T this year that said postdoctoral fellows were employees of their universities. According to Ms. Newton, provinces look to the Ontario Labour Relations Board for precedent, so this will likely impact future rulings as they crop up.
As Queen’s postdoctoral fellows have recently unionized, Ms. Newton had particularly good insight and listed off some of the key challenges specific to collective bargaining for postdoctoral fellows:
- Job postings (timelines, impact on international recruits)
- Seniority (specializations of postdoctoral fellows are very different)
- Hours of work / overtime
- Postdocs are rarely discussed in university IP discussions whereas faculty members are typically considered. Generally it is thought “he who creates, owns”, what about postdocs?
- Mix of PI-funded and independently funded postdocs complicates collective bargaining
In discussions later on that day, it came up that there are union representatives pressuring postdoctoral fellows at several universities to unionize – have any of our readers experienced this?
NSERC CREATE numbers
As fast as my little pen would move, I scrambled to copy down NSERC’s numbers for its CREATE program. I’ve not seen these presented on their website in such a breakdown, so I thought it would be useful to share.
The vast majority of CREATE grants are for 1.65 million over 6 years and are meant to fund trainees under themed programs of research. CREATE does not fund actual research costs and 80% of the funds go into trainee stipends with the other 20% being for coordination and travel. So, who do they support?
This may well be the topic of another blog post about the CREATE model which has its benefits and drawbacks. For now, it is interesting to note how these awards stack up against the US National Institutes of Health recommendation from earlier this year which was to shift the balance away from grant-funded postdoctoral fellowships in favour of fellowship and training awards. The NIH shows that postdoctoral fellows who obtain merit-based awards (e.g.: fellowships) are more likely to gain independence sooner. It would be very interesting to see what comes out of CREATE in terms of times to graduation, publication record, and age of independence for these trainees vs. NSERC’s fellowship/scholarship funded trainees.
On a side note, in another session the topic of transition awards in Canada (e.g., NIH K99/R00 awards) was brought up and it seems that the biggest challenge for these from granting councils is to figure out where the money could come from. It seems they’ve made these awards a priority at the NIH – perhaps our leadership will see them as valuable as well.
Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS)
Luckily, the CAPA meeting also meant that many of the CAPS Executive Committee were in town and we took the chance to meet the day before the conference to carve out the key components of that organization. Members were very active in the CAPA meeting drilling home the three primary concerns of Canadian postdocs that the member university representatives agreed on:
- The need for clarity on the status, timeline, and treatment of PDFs at universities and partner institutes.
- More extensive professional development for PDFs (both academic and non-academic).
- Communication and collaboration between CAPS and CAPA and the national granting agencies.
There were several pleas made for more involvement of postdoctoral fellows in establishing policy that affects them (e.g., the NSERC decision to restrict fellowship applications to once per lifetime) and it seemed that the message was well-received, but the proof will be in the pudding as we move forward. Stay tuned for updates on the CAPS website and we’ll continue to give regular updates of advocacy efforts on this site.
This quarter has been a very busy one for both Jonathan and me. Unfortunately from my end, this meant that the scienceadvocacy.org resource site is not yet live. Things are starting to take shape and it should be launched this autumn. We hope this will be an easier-to-navigate resource page that can direct early career researchers and policymakers to the items they need without having to dig around too much or re-invent the wheel. We’ll certainly keep readers posted on its progress.
For now, here’s the quarterly recap for those readers that have been busy too!
Our other activities
Dave published a feature article in BlueSci, Cambridge’s science magazine on the training of scientists, entitled Whose Training is it Anyway?
In response to my comments on the NIH and NAS reports, S_C pitched a question to readers that sadly went untouched. I think we’ll have to follow up on it. It’s an interesting suggestion to create research-focused assistant professors for 5-10 years and evaluate their performance – good ones stay, bad ones go (I see Cambridge doing similar things, Boston too).
One of the most heavily commented and read articles on our site, the discussion that ensued from the article on NSERC restricting postdocs to one fellowship application per lifetime, was very heated. This is one of the poorest decisions that NSERC has ever made and I really think they’ve failed to see the hugely negative impact that it will have on the system – see the CAPS letter in response to this.
Popular posts this quarter
Earlier this summer, two major reports were released from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the National Academy of Sciences. Beryl Lieff Benderly offers an excellent, though slightly pessimistic, summary of the reports and their potential implications on the Science Careers site and this is well worth a read if you’re not willing to wade through the over 400 pages combined. If you do read through the reports outside of your day job, it will likely take you as long as me to form some opinions on their contents and whether or not they can work in practice. The reports cover much more than what I will talk about below, but I’ve tried to pull out some ideas that I think Canadian universities and policy makers would do well to pay attention to.
On a side note, the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars is looking to collate the opinions of its postdocs (all of those working in Canada and Canadians abroad) to help focus its advocacy efforts on the key issues for early career researchers in Canada. Please visit their website and Facebook page if you would like to share your thoughts (or leave them below).
The three items arising from these reports that I was particularly impressed with are:
- Reduce the time to complete a PhD
- More fellowships, less grant funded PDFs
- Two streams: Scientist and Academic
1. Reduce the time to complete a PhD
My PhD took 5 1/2 years to complete and, as someone who is at least curious about the prospect of running my own lab, I see enormous benefit from the extra time in training over a 3-4 year PhD. My final two years were easily my most productive and I was able to build networks of scientists through a lengthy stay at a single institution. Was it necessary for this time to be spent entirely as a graduate student though? The ability to assess information critically and design good experiments can surely be taught in the first three to four years — if people need the time for finishing PhD research projects for publications, let them take on a year or two of postdoctoral work in their PhD lab. It is simply unfair to expect someone who is getting a PhD for a purpose other than becoming an academic to spend five to seven years (the 2006 median in the U.S. was actually 7.9 years) of their twenties in graduate school. If we beat the drum about the need for PhD quality scientists in law, journalism and public policy, then we must come up with ways to train them more efficiently.
Graduate programs at Canadian universities should be substantially shorter and broadly inclusive of all types of graduate students — from those driven to become professors to those looking to acquire the skills of a doctorate for another profession.
2. More fellowships, less grant-funded PDFs
An interesting table is presented in the NIH report that shows the relative future success of NIH fellowship funded vs. grant-funded postdoctoral fellows. Both the average time to obtaining a first operating grant (RO1) and the average success rate is substantially higher for those on fellowships (5.3 years, 48.3%) compared to those funded from grants (6.5 years, 32.5%). The cynic would say that these numbers simply represent being on the gravy train where each award breeds the next, just as papers from well-known labs are purported to get an easier ride in big journals. However, I would argue that this makes an even stronger case for making more fellowships available in lieu of grant-funded posts where more “chances” can be taken by award committee members. Furthermore, the NIH report makes an excellent point that few, if any, mechanisms exist to judge the quality of training given to a grant-funded researcher. More fellowships would allow better tracking and quality control of training environments.
Will Canada’s granting agencies do the same? It sure as hell makes for better press than NSERC’s 9% success rate in PDF fellowships…
3. Two streams: Scientist and Academic
Though the timing can be quite varied, many of those who hold a PhD realize that they have a preference for bench work compared to running their own group. It seems to me that professors can recognize who the most valuable members of their research team are, but it also seems that the careers that get best supported are the ones that shoot for independent investigator. If a postdoctoral fellow is highly skilled and does not want to run their own group, wouldn’t it make sense to put them in permanent positions that have good salaries and benefits? We’ve written about this before in a previous entry, The solution: Hire scientists to do scientific research… On this note I have to share the pessimistic view of Ms. Lieff Benderly on the kitten-strength recommendation from the NIH:
“The working group encourages NIH study sections to be receptive to grant applications that include staff scientists and urges institutions to create position categories that reflect the value and stature of these researchers.”
Will universities and research institutes step up to the plate and hire departmental research scientists, or will research scientists be forced to depend on their supervisors’ grant wrangling skills? My bet is on the latter if there is no obvious benefit for research institutions.
In conclusion, I hope that all of those who work for a granting agency, university or research institute will read these reports. Understand that there has been a dramatic change in the biomedical research workforce over the last decade and try to address the changes. Shorten the PhD, reward researchers on merit, and let scientists do scientific research for a career.
Scientific research is a marathon, and if we fall behind now, while we are leaders in health innovation, the cost of recovering our position, in light of emerging economies with which we compete, will become progressively more expensive. Sustained increases in National Institutes of Health and Canadian Institutes of Health Research funding are critical to maintain North America’s innovation engines at a crucial time for research and the economy, and most importantly to improve the health and well-being of our populations.
Now is the time for scientists to advocate most strongly for national investment in biomedical research. Members of Parliament, Members of Provincial Parliament and Members of the Legislative Assembly in Canada, as well as senators and congresspersons in the United States are the decision-makers you elect to represent you – write to them. You can go to http://www.canada.gc.ca/directories-repertoires/direct-eng.html and enter your postal code (in Canada), or http://www.house.gov and enter your zip code (in the United States) to access your representative.
Things to remember when composing your letter:
- Identify yourself as a constituent and a member of the scientific community
- Ask that the legislator support sustainable funding priorities for your federal funding agency.
- Briefly explain why these issues are important to you.
- Acknowledge the efforts that are being made by their party
- Give them your contact information and ask to be informed about the actions their office takes in response to your request.
Letters need to be kept simple and as personal as possible, with tangible examples of actions MPs, MPPs, and MLAs can take to change the landscape of how biomedical research is supported in Canada. These should be provided to the legislator in the form of a one-page cheat-sheet with your contact information included for reference. If dealing with your senator or congressperson in the United States you will need to ask to speak/meet with your representative’s health legislative assistant who handles health care issues in the district or state.
Giving opposition members speaking points against current government policies, emphasizing the economic relevance/importance of your position, and holding legislators accountable for providing examples of and justifying actions they have taken on their own promises are all good ways of having your opinions considered. After the meeting it is important to follow up with your representative within the week, whether or not the representative was supportive of your position. This is your chance to remind them of what you discussed and further emphasize the importance of their involvement on this issue.
- Major research funding in Canada is done federally, but provinces are responsible for health spending and many provinces (e.g.: BC, Ontario, Quebec) have contributed to major infrastructure projects.
- States often put aside money for research into targeted areas (e.g. California’s support of stem cell research) and are generally more independent than Canadian provinces.
- Many federal representatives will have specific assistants/aides for health related issues -ask to speak/meet with them
Example speaking points:
- Low funding rates (NSERC PDFs, CIHR operating grants, etc.)
- Low postdoctoral fellow salaries compared to other countries
- Plus, 4 or 5 more good statistics that show why basic health research is a good investment or is currently underinvested.
While the argument for the government to prioritize an industry where the number of clinical advances, drug developments and cures is proportional to total research investment is not a difficult case to make – it needs to be made. I and others at The Black Hole continue to work at concentrating and contextualizing some of the more important issues facing early career scientists in Canada and abroad.
Take advantage of this resource and use hard numbers to emphasize your points. Addressing these concerns forces the issue to light, and commits politicians to publicly defensible positions for which they can subsequently be held accountable. Government agencies cannot lobby for themselves and policy makers do not share your unique perspective. Our health, economy, and the future of scientific progress are at stake, so step up and speak out.
It falls to scientists to speak up in support of federally funding research and in this third installment of a four-part series, I explore the economic cost of doing research in a cash-strapped system and the burden this is placing on young investigators.
To bring yourself up to speed, installements 1 and 2 are referenced below:
- Biomedical Research and Broken Clocks: All the Parts, but No Instructions
- A Difficult Pill To Swallow: The Harsh Realities of a 15% Funding Rate
As has been discussed here on and off for quite some time, 80% of PhDs in the US will not become professors. For the majority of these scientific investigators, the inability to secure a faculty position has meant that they must languish in a series of post-doctoral positions supported by grant-funded professors who are increasingly finding themselves with limited resources. The average age of independence in research is now in the mid-40s, a testament to the bleak prospects facing young scientists (PDF).
Given this highly unstable state of academic funding, it is not surprising that many investigators have chosen to transition into more secure professions like teaching, medicine or law. For an in-depth review of the career prospects of a post-doctoral research scientist please see Careers and Rewards in the Bio Sciences: The Disconnect Between Scientific Progress and Career Progression (PDF). The loss hurts our competitiveness in biomedical research and forces industry abroad.
Given our current economy, it is imperative that efforts to improve the nation’s fiscal stability be grounded in the long-term competitiveness of industries we currently head, and that we leverage our expertise in medical science and capacity to do high-tech research. This does not need to come from increased government spending alone. Whereas academic medicine cannot build R&D into the pricing of its services, universities profit directly from tuition fees, patents and personal endowments.
Since these revenues are derived from faculty teaching loads, the scientific success of their investigators, and established reputation of their research program, faculty support must be factored into departmental operating budgets, freeing up tax dollars to directly support research innovation. Another idea would be to create tax breaks for private donations to federal funding agencies in an effort to reduce their dependence on public dollars and incentivize industry investment in national research programs. In the United States (the same nation that passed the Bayh-Dole Act to spur commercialization of university research), government funding of university research exceeds business funding by an order of magnitude, and business investment in university research is nearly half that of Canada (PDF).
Finally, limiting the number of federal awards issued per investigator, most of which are held by senior faculty (PDF), would open up more funding opportunities to help support young investigators and significantly lower the age of independence. While the debate of whether to preferentially support established labs with proven track records over younger faculty with new ideas is ongoing, without early career support junior researchers will not succeed.
If we are unwilling to prioritize young faculty and share what wealth there is, perhaps the better question is “Should we continue training so many of them?”