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The Black Hole

An insider’s view: Banting awards falling short

BY DAVID KENT | NOV 26 2012

Today we are very excited to have a guest post from one of Canada’s new Banting Fellows, who has asked to remain anonymous. You may be surprised to read this person’s assessment of Canada’s “Cadillac” award for postdocs. The most challenging question, from our perspective, that our blogger raises is: Are universities buying the fellowships?

One year ago, the Government of Canada launched the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship to much fanfare. The program aims to “attract and retain” top-tier international talent and position award holders “for success as research leaders of tomorrow.” Despite some initial reviews, there has been little evaluation of how the scheme is faring. My aim here is to provide my own perspective as a life scientist holding a Banting at one of the largest universities in Canada.

The goals of the Banting fellowship are certainly laudable. Foremost, they aim to provide early career scientists with the flexibility and support to establish an independent research career. The trouble with the awards, however, is that they only last for two years. This prevents award holders from establishing a presence as a leader because they cannot apply for research grants from the tri-councils on a two-year, non-faculty position, nor supervise graduate students, because they’ll be out of a job before the students finish! Ultimately, I think the lofty ambitions of the program will go unrealized because of this limited tenure.

Other countries, such as Britain and Germany, have similar mechanisms to recruit the world’s top postdoctoral talent. The difference is that they recognize that becoming a research “leader” means just that, the ability to lead a group of researchers in developing a comprehensive body of work. Top programs in these countries that Canada should be emulating include the Royal Society University Research Fellowships, Advanced Fellowships offered by the UK research councils and charities, and Germany’s Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Obviously, offering longer fellowships comes at a cost. One option would be for the tri-councils to halve the number of Bantings and increase the funding to four years. This could be achieved by reducing the value of the award. Personally, I care very little about my salary, and I imagine that other researchers that are passionate about their work, place monetary gain well beneath their work. I would happily be paid half of my current salary if my Banting lasted four years, allowed me to apply for a CIHR Operating Grant or NSERC Discovery grant, and supervise graduate students. A second option would be to create new, longer-term fund schemes such as by re-allocating fund from other budgets. Such actions would put serious support behind new investigators in Canada and parallel many of the international funding programs mentioned above, which have both short- and long-term fellowships for candidates of differing experience and achievement.

My second gripe with the Banting fellowships is their definition of “institutional support.” This is very vague on the program website, so what exactly does (or could) it entail? No doubt anecdotal, but I am compelled to recount a tale of a friend of mine who is exceptionally successful in his field (physical sciences) and has worked at several of the top institutions in the world. You would expect him to be a prime candidate for a Banting and indeed, he applied for a Banting at one of the best universities in Canada. But because this university has an excellent reputation, it offered him no additional financial support. They felt that their reputation was sufficient reason for him to come to their institution, in addition to the collaborators that were there. In the end, he did not receive a Banting, despite being highly qualified with a strong research proposal.

By contrast, my own university has been exceptionally generous with their financial commitment to my research, demonstrating strong support to the Banting committee. Ironically, despite my host institution’s support, there are few staff members that I can engage with, especially when compared to my colleague’s choice of research environment. While this is a sample size of two, I cannot help but feel suspicious that some universities may be using the offer of “institutional support” to, in effect, “buy” fellowships to raise their profile. My host university has provided no benefits aside from research money, yet I would happily trade some cash for the potential to supervise graduate students.

To summarize, while I’m certainly better off that I’ve held a Banting, I can’t see how they are any different from a standard PDF. At my university, it makes no difference whatsoever that I hold the award – all post-docs are equally treated as “non-employees”! It seems to me that all the Government of Canada has done by creating this program is generated two salary tiers for PDFs, without additional benefits. To me, this seems like a huge misdirection of very limited resources by a government so preoccupied with fiscal accountability. The government needs to extend the fellowship duration and work with universities to deliver tangible research benefits if the program is to achieve its purpose and positively contribute to Canada’s growth.

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Jim / November 26, 2012 at 11:05

    The Banting program is not meant to be a pre-PI award. These used to exist (MRC Scholarship) and were a mixed blessing as they got the University off the hook for 5 years of salary during which the scholar was either successful or not in attracting operating awards. Some universities made appointment conditional on winning a scholarship (even if the applicant had been funded with an operating grant). The question of whether a “pre-PI” award should is exist should be debated. I’m not at all in favour as I think it would simply extend the already long post doc period and become another step in this process. Moreover, as pointed out, there are attributes about winning a Banting that are not necessarily aligned with research potential.

  2. Dave K / November 26, 2012 at 13:07

    Hi Jim –

    Thanks for your comments – always appreciated. I think that you are spot on about the need for discussion about whether or not transition awards are causing more problems than they solve.

    I guess one of the items worth flagging is the statements on the Banting program website: http://banting.fellowships-bourses.gc.ca/en/home-accueil.html

    The primary purpose appears to attract postdocs “to develop their leadership potential and to position them for success as research leaders of tomorrow”

    To conclude, they state that a Banting “allows highly motivated and competitive researchers to realize their full potential and develop their careers”

    To me, this sounds very much like the lingo used in the UK (where I’m based currently) for their Career Development Awards.

    Whether or not “pre-PI” awards should exist – This is an excellent question that I’ll try to write about in the coming weeks after getting some additional research done on numbers, etc. My first inclination is to agree with you – more delays in an already delayed career progression to actual independence seems like a bad idea… we’ll see what comes up though – stay tuned!

  3. Author / November 27, 2012 at 17:36

    Jim
    Thanks for the comments. One of the points worth making is that a pre-PI award wouldn’t be needed if there were sufficient numbers of faculty jobs available. But there aren’t (or at least in my field), so there need to be longer awards. Moreover, the post doc period is becoming longer in Canada whether we like it or not, so we need to find better ways of supporting folk through this.

  4. Banting applicant / November 28, 2012 at 14:13

    Thanks for this interesting post. I applied for a Banting for next year and, frankly, I am not sure it was worth all the time I had to put into it (precisely because it is only two years). What wasn’t made clear to me from the outset was that I’d have to spend a lot of time and energy drafting up the institutional documents for the university in question because they don’t have the resources to do this themselves. So much for ‘institutional support’! I now know a great deal about a certain institution’s policies and five-year plans. If there had been more transparency from the beginning, perhaps I would have considered a different school, one that would put its weight into the institutional support (which seems to also be financial). I agree with the author that more precarious positions (like postdocs) are really not a good solution to the lack of jobs in academia: At the very least, I too would prefer to have a 5 year postdoc position (even if not permanent) over a string of 1 or 2-year postdocs!

    • CRC_anon / November 29, 2012 at 13:20

      Dear BantingApplicant:
      You are right in feeling slighted by having to complete the institutional part yourself. Maybe there is a silver lining, however. I hold a CRC position at a small university in Ontario and for various reasons, including fiscal limitations, I have had to write or complete my institution’s “institutional part” in both my CRC application and in the CFI-LOF application. Thus, while this may be unconscionable, wasteful, and disrespectful to the researcher, unfortunately, your experience is probably good training for what you may face in the near future when you land a tenure-track position…

  5. Pino / November 29, 2012 at 08:35

    Hi David,

    An alternative is to have the University/PI match the Banting fellowship for two extra years. The way I see it right now is, if you get a two year fellowship, you are essentially “free labor” for the University or PI. But if they were to match the fellowship for two more years that will cover a PDF for a total of 4 years of research. For the PI/University it would be just like paying a “regular” PDF for 4 years. Hey, if universities are serious about attracting the best then they should commit to it.