In my last post, I alluded to a wish list for our new government that would “inspire change across a country that has become, in international eyes, a non-supportive scientific environment.” When I began my PhD in 2003, there was much more liveliness in the science community of Canada: people had bold ideas for how to create vibrant scientific research environments, networks of scientists emerged, pooling resources to work together. Now it rather seems that they are fighting over scraps (just listen to the feedback about recent changes to CIHR’s grant structure); scientists are worried about their jobs and the job security of their employees.
Why is this so close to my heart? Those who have followed our blog probably know that both Jonathan and I are Canadian-trained PhDs who left Canada in 2008/09 to pursue research elsewhere, and when the time came to establish our independent research groups (over the last two years), the opportunities in Canada were severely limited and the environment was as described – fighting for scraps. We both independently opted to set up groups at Harvard (Jonathan) and Cambridge (me) and, in Jonathan’s case, this meant years of separation from his partner who relocated back to Canada.
So, now Canada has two ministers with “science” in their portfolio and a strong mandate for change. What will happen next?
Our newly ensconced Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has issued mandate letters to each minister, all publicly available. To the Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, he has said:
“We are a government that believes in science – and a government that believes that good scientific knowledge should inform decision-making. We believe that investments in scientific research, including an appropriate balance between fundamental research to support new discoveries and the commercialization of ideas, will lead to good jobs and sustainable economic growth.”
Some of the specific top priorities for the Hon. Ms. Duncan are:
- Create a Chief Science Officer
- Ensure that environmental assessment decisions are based on science, facts, and evidence
- Help employers create more co-op placements
- Re-insert scientific considerations into the heart of our decision-making
- Examine options to strengthen the recognition of, and support for, fundamental research to support new discoveries
The language is all pointing in the right direction (haven’t scientists been begging for more of numbers 4 and 5 for decades?), so I hope that many academic brains will get to work to put the very best ideas onto a receptive table. The following is my personal wish list based on our years of writing on these issues.
Increase the presence of scientists in Parliament/government
A personal favourite scheme of mine (though admittedly small) was something I heard first from former national science adviser Art Cart,y who wanted to have professors go on sabbatical to Parliament and/or provincial legislatures. I think that for key issues which involve substantial amounts of science (climate change, healthcare, human embryonic stem cells, etc.), it would be especially useful to have experts in Ottawa constantly informing the debate. For example, such experts could give reports to the House, make points of clarification during committee meetings, or even identify possible outcomes/solutions from the field that have not yet entered the mainstream.
A more comprehensive solution would be for Canada to do what the U.K. and U.S. do and embed science advice inside the departments/ministries themselves. The very first line on the web page of the UK Office for Science says “Every government department has a chief scientific adviser.” Canadians should be drooling at the prospect.
Wish 1: Sabbaticals in parliament and more federal and provincial department-affiliated scientists
Hire scientists to do scientific research
Currently, the academic enterprise forces the vast majority of scientists to stop doing work at the lab bench. The career structure is such that one gets a PhD, then does some postdoctoral research, then either leaves science or goes on to manage scientists. Many universities and institutes have created permanent positions for grant facilitators, project managers, human resources managers, accountants, etc., as essential components of the research enterprise … but why not scientists?
A postdoctoral fellow position should be restricted to those that are explicitly involved in a purposeful temporary training experience: retooling, gaining research independence with the intention to move on to start their own research group. If you want hands to drive projects that fall outside of a technician’s role, then hire scientists, pay them well, keep them happy, and watch the benefits roll in.
Wish 2: Create respectable, well-compensated positions for PhDs who love bench work, love exploring new ideas, love academic lab environments, but are simply not going to (nor do they want to) run their own lab.
Define the status of early career scientists
Early career researchers do not have clear employment or administrative status. Across the country, scientists with PhDs at universities can be classified as employees, students, independent contractors, or trainees. Oftentimes, this does not match to how they are viewed with respect to federal and/or provincial employment or labour classification. After many years of advanced formal education, most post-PhD scientists do not perceive themselves as “students” or “trainees” (CAPS survey) but as similar to other employees at their institutions and deserving of access to the same employee benefits.
In fact, it has always puzzled me why young scientists are not viewed in the same way that young doctors, lawyers and accountants are viewed – the training is more or less complete, this is their first (often temporary) job, they are employees. Why are post-PhD scientists not employees?
Wish 3: Define the status of early career scientists – trainees or employees? (My personal preference based on experience in both systems is the latter: post-PhD scientists should have jobs).
Create government-funded research buildings in priority areas
Previous investment in infrastructure is still very relevant – the MaRS Discovery District is still one of the most highly concentrated groups of university and hospital researchers in the world and the buildings and the networks of scientists are still strong. Other targeted investments were made in many areas across the country and Canada has consistently been ranked highly in its ability to train students. The Canada Foundation for Innovation did a particularly good job building infrastructure in the medical sciences. The reality is that in order to compete internationally, Canada needs to identify in which areas of science it has a competitive edge (e.g., marine biology, oil and gas engineering, stem cells and regenerative medicine, forestry, etc), then the country needs to invest in comprehensive programs to build the capacity to make real-world impacts. The basic science needs to be strong, the pathway to economic, social, or health benefit needs to be well-oiled, and the end-users need to know that Canada is the place to invest in those key areas.
My own expertise is too limited to specify which areas need investment, but it seems to me that government-funded research centres in areas of national interest (e.g, fresh water security, public health, etc) are a very good starting point.
Wish 4: Specific investment in government funded research institutes and operations in areas where Canada has a competitive edge.
Interestingly, three of the four on this list involve people – and I really do believe that investment in people is the way forward. Internationally, the pressures on early career scientists are on their career progression and not on the research they produce. Could the cart be further in front of the horse? I’m not suggesting permanent jobs for everyone that wants to pick up a lab coat, but what I am suggesting is to make jobs in science meaningful and plentiful.
This is not just the responsibility of government – scientists need to improve their own environment and contribute to the evidence-base. Most importantly, they need to understand how science policy works (I’ve written about this before). It’s a two way street that can benefit both sides enormously without costing a huge amount of money.