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The Black Hole

Budget 2010: Post Docs, be careful what you wish for…

BY DAVID KENT | MAR 10 2010

Last week Canadians were treated to another Harper Government budget where the post doctoral stage of developing highly qualified researchers was finally recognized as an important part of the research enterprise. Post docs shared a grand “hurrah!” as this was a good thing, and long overdue.

Oddly enough, it was not just lip service as Jim Flaherty was “especially pleased to announce in the Budget, new funding for post-doctoral researchers” proposing to create a program for post docs akin to the Canada Graduate Scholarship (which recently gave select graduate students an excellent stipend over their studies at $35,000/yr) which would earmark $70,000 per year for select PDFs over the next five years.

BUT… look a little more deeply – say…somewhere around page 349 in Annex 5, it couldn’t be written more clearly:

post-doctoral fellowships will be taxable

We hear you, and thank you for the clarity. It’s been a long haul through the murky waters since 2006 when post docs were unsure whether or not their fellowships would fall under the scholarship exemption. Budget 2010 proposes to straighten this up.

So, yes – lots of post docs are upset as this represents an instantaneous $4000-$6000 pay cut. If you are getting a $38,000 fellowship from SSHRC, you get knocked down to ~$33,000 and if you get a $40,000 fellowship from NSERC/CIHR, you now take home ~$35,000. So, as of 2010, a fellowship funded PDF will take home the same or less than a PhD funded by a Canada Graduate Scholarship.

I ask you – What other career path recognizes more training and more experience with less pay and little to no benefits?

You say – what about these newly conceived $70,000/yr fellowships? I say – there aren’t enough of them to go around as there are 6000 PDFs in Canada and only 140 fellowships (2%). Also, Post docs don’t just last two years (in fact, some single experiments on their own last two years!), so after your glory years of funding, you take a 50% pay cut…sounds fun doesn’t it? Add all of that to the reality that just about every advertisement in medical science related faculties at McGill, Toronto, Alberta, and UBC amongst others has a requirement for 3-6 years of PDF experience. I had to ask my brother with the mathematics degree to figure this complicated stuff out for me.

Seriously… who thinks up these policies? Why not ask someone (oh I don’t know… maybe someone like the Canadian Association of Post Doctoral Scholars) about what a post doc actually does and would such a program work?

There are 6000 PDFs in Canada that are critical to the research enterprise and the human resource shift over the last 15 years is staggering. Will this program keep the best and brightest in Canada and attract new international fellows?

NO

The reasons are simple
1. The program is for 2% of PDFs
2. The funding lasts for two years only – the average PDF length is substantially longer
3. The wide discrepancy gives a major financial disincentive to stay longer than two years
And really… I don’t know what kind of hot shot junior scientists you think are out there, but picking post docs is not like a hockey draft where a selection like Sidney Crosby will change the fate of your entire lab. Research happens in incremental bits through the hard work and dedication of teams of scientists. Telling 98% of them to “suck it up” so 2% can enjoy an excellent salary is not sending the right message.
What the government really needs to do is improve the entire trainee environment and cultivate Canada’s international reputation as a great place to do scientific research, full stop. Stop grabbing headlines with superstar scholarships… it does very little practical good, especially at the graduate student and post doc levels.

So, in the end, the real problem is not whether or not PDFs should be scholarship exempt it’s whether or not they take home a fair wage. So the solution could be a tax exemption, but it could also be a national raise in PDF salaries.

The latter would be reasonably easy (and not so expensive) to achieve by doing three things:
1. Making fellowships worth more (and not the $70,000 kind – something civilized like $45,000 or $50,000 would be fine and clearly distinguish them from the majority of graduate student stipends)
2. Establishing minimum salaries for PDFs paid from a grant
3. Scaling the wages based on research experience (as the National Cancer Institute of Canada already does successfully with both its fellowships and for PDFs paid off NCIC program grants)

Funnily enough, this type of change would not cost the Government much more than the $45 million promised for the superstar fellowships – but of course it wouldn’t be nearly as sexy to release in a Budget, it would merely make sense.

What I hope you’ll do to push this issue:
1. Sign the online petition to maintain the competitiveness of a postdoctoral research career in Canada
2. Write your MP using the template on the CAPS site
3. Tell all your research friends to do the same and if you know a sympathetic person in politics or the media, put them in touch with CAPS.
4. Join the Facebook Group

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. SubC / March 10, 2010 at 23:18

    The vast majority of Canadian postdocs already pay taxes (including those in U of A and U of C, where I have worked). Personally, I am glad that the playing field is level across Canada and the “invisible” postdocs have been mentioned in the Federal Budget (only a hint of irony here) !
    That being said, it is time to raise the funded postdoc salary (i.e. from external fellowships such as CIHR or HSFC) to at least C$ 45K/yr from the current 40K.
    The minimum postdoc salary would be great, but I think the real initiative has to come from the universities rather than funding agencies.
    Thanks to this blog for highlighting the Facebook CAPS group and all these important issues. Keep up the good work !!

  2. mich / March 11, 2010 at 04:37

    I don’t quite understand why scholarships and fellowships are taxable. Most of the funding agencies’ money is from tax dollars, no? So it’s like a double tax?

  3. SubC / March 11, 2010 at 18:04

    @ mich- By this argument, all Govt employees should not be paying taxes ! And same for all the politicians …. yuck !!

  4. kate / March 14, 2010 at 19:44

    Does anyone know if this means now our income will be T4 eligible and we’ll get RRSP and EI benefits etc?

  5. Dave / March 15, 2010 at 00:33

    Hi Kate,
    I think the way it works (check with someone who knows for sure though!) is that scholarship income will generate RRSP space as long as it does not get exempted. The scholarship exemption allows you to make “nothing” from scholarships. You’ll still be taxed and therefore you still have an income and the income makes space for RRSPs.
    With EI it’s different… if you’re not paid from a T4 and “employed” you probably won’t pay into EI or CPP and would not be eligible. If the scholarship ruling sticks (i.e.: when the budget gets made into law) then I’d consider trying to get employee status from your boss especially if you forsee a possible need for EI.
    Dave