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A framework for changing the current research economy


While I’ve published these sentiments before, the growing inefficiency in academic research makes this particular point worth repeating. Postdoctoral fellows drive research in academic labs (see Statistics Canada’s Expectations and Labour Market Outcomes of Doctoral Graduates from Canadian Universities) and their salaries, including indirect costs, constitute a major portion of a research budget. Nevertheless, only 14% of PhDs in the biological sciences enter tenure-track positions within 5-6 years of earning their PhD (How Economics Shapes Science, by Paula Stephan, Harvard University Press, 2012).

Given the current contraction of federal funding, further investment in postdoctoral fellowships significantly depletes research dollars while supporting research programs that end prematurely – i.e., when the fellow leaves academic research to pursue another career trajectory. This happens often, and professors are left dealing with the fallout of research studies that must be shelved (sometimes for decades) while the expertise (and often much of the data) is lost. Consequently, most research projects enjoy short bursts of significant progress, followed by long periods of limited advancement.

Moreover, federal investment is being used in graduate programs to train about 4,200 doctorates a year (versus 43,400 in the United States) that will go on to support other industries (the number of graduates reported is from the Post-secondary Student Information System, or PSIS, as cited in King, Eisl-Culkin and Desjardins, 2008; and U.S. Doctorates Awarded Rise for Sixth Year, But Growth Slower, by Mark I. Fiegener, National Science Foundation, Info Brief, November 2009). This constitutes a significant loss of return on investment for the taxpayer – particularly when one-fifth of us now plan on leaving Canada following graduation.

While it is common to seek postdoctoral training abroad, what concerns me is that of the 55% of Canadian doctorates that leave Canada with intentions of returning, only 24% do return (see StatsCan report, above). Eventually, another scientist is brought in to continue the work and bring it to publication, without the advantage of knowing what has already been done. In every case, this requires repetition of the research and constitutes another example of inefficiency and wastage of federal investment in scientific innovation, and a huge loss of intellectual capital.

To address growing inefficiencies in the system, postdoctoral fellowships in academic research should be divided into investigator-track and non-academic tracks at the outset. The investigator-track positions should be limited to 3 years and feed directly into faculty positions where productive research projects can be seen through to completion. Since there are already limited number of investigator-track faculty positions available at academic research institutes, universities should begin revising their graduate programs to better reflect the growing demand for non-academic professionals in the biomedical research industry, and to better match the exceedingly low demand for new academic faculty at our universities.

For Canadian doctorates choosing to pursue postdoctoral training abroad, this means creating options for them back home. Graduate programs in biomedical research should also include alternate career streams in biotechnology, drug development, clinical trial administration, engineering, policy development, scientific writing, core instructional facility support (e.g., setting up teaching labs), core investigational facility support (e.g., maintaining high-throughput drug screening facilities), and departmental administration that directly feed in to the industries they support.

A cooperative education model for graduate programs in these career streams, such as is currently employed in the first year of some graduate schools in North America, promotes career clarity, enhanced employability and vocational maturity that benefit students and employers alike. The ability to track federal investment of taxpayer dollars into specific career trajectories will allow more precise and dynamic allocation of taxpayer dollars to areas of economic interest to drive growing industries or meet market needs.

The involvement of industry partnerships in the educational development of young scientists also permits the market to better regulate supply with demand and enables cost-sharing of the training burden involved in generating a highly educated workforce, freeing research monies to directly support more long-term scientific innovation. In contrast to current practices, the goal of both the public and private sectors should be to train only those scientists the system can sustain and no more. For academic science, this means less time spent on grants and greater progress on fewer projects. For Canadian industry, this means greater productivity and better retention of our intellectual capital, making us more competitive. For the public, this means less financial waste and a quicker return on investment. Win-win-win.

Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the CEO and chief scientific officer of Platelet BioGenesis, and a faculty member in the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
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