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THE BLACK HOLE

Attracting and retaining talented researchers

By JONATHAN THON | OCT 15 2013

“Doctorate recipients begin careers in large and small organizations, teach in universities, and start new businesses. Doctoral education develops human resources that are critical to a nation’s progress—scientists, engineers, researchers, and scholars who create and share new knowledge and new ways of thinking that lead, directly and indirectly, to innovative products, services, and works of art. In doing so, they contribute to a nation’s economic growth, cultural development, and rising standard of living.” – National Science Foundation (2011)

The best way to attract and retain talented researchers in Canada is to offer them jobs. While Canadian postsecondary education is recognized worldwide for its excellence, Canada produces significantly more PhDs than it can gainfully employ (The research bottleneck, flying blind; Playing the devil’s advocate on low salaries). Declining academic positions (universities presently employ 87% of Canadian PhDs), limited pathways for advancement as decision makers in government (the second major employer of Canadian PhDs, 9%), and a limited high technology sector which presently employs only 4% of PhDs as compared to the 42% hired by industry in the United States (In Canada you can get a PhD, but maybe not a job) suggests that retention of PhD researchers following their postdoctoral fellowships is where Canada is falling short. Emphasis should be placed in funding faculty appointments for Canadian investigators first, and attracting top-tier international researchers second.

Managing a research lab is no different than running a small business (a subject I’ll be addressing in an upcoming post). In order to create opportunities for scientists at the interface between academia and industry, the federal government should invest in industry co-sponsored tier 1 and tier 2 research chairs tenable for at least 5-7 years, such as are offered through the Canada Research Chairs program, and support this program by expanding infrastructure support provided by the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

In exchange for accepting a co-sponsored independent research position at a major academic institution, new faculty will receive a cross-appointment in the sponsoring company, be required to consult on in-house research and development pipelines, and will be expected to pursue one or more translational (bench-to-market) research projects for which the sponsoring industry partner will receive first-rights to patent and the academic institution and federal government will be permitted to claim a proportional (albeit smaller) share.

Renewal, while dependent on publication record and academic success, will include evidence of market value in a subset of research programs. Priority will be given to Canadian citizens for both tier 1 (established researcher) and tier 2 (emerging researcher) chairs, however tier 1 chair appointments should provide sufficient flexibility to be used as a recruitment tool to attract world leaders in their fields. International experience for candidates applying to both tier 1 and tier 2 research chairs should be encouraged since it helps bring to Canada expertise from internationally-recognized research labs abroad.

Tier 2 research grants should not require prior faculty appointment to be eligible for nomination. A major limitation of federal funding programs for young investigators in Canada is the requirement of an existing faculty appointment. This clause constitutes a chicken and egg argument whereby Canadian universities are presently reticent to hire new faculty due to lack of guaranteed funding, and young researchers cannot apply for independent funding without first securing a faculty appointment.

Allowing postdoctoral fellows to apply for independent funding ahead of securing their first faculty appointment will allow the federal government to attract the best and brightest Canadian scientists and direct scientific innovation in Canada by selecting which research programs will be supported. In the case of industry-co-sponsored research chairs, this will stress research plans that exhibit potential for bench-to-market translation. If successful, this program should be expanded to include private industries beyond traditional economic powerhouses such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics to include the social sciences and humanities as well.

ABOUT JONATHAN THON
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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