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.
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?”