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Major policy changes needed to bring academia into the 21st century


There are problems with academic science. We all know this to be true. After roughly eight years of maintaining The Black Hole blog, and three decades having experienced academic science from the ground up — as curious kids, volunteers, undergraduates and then graduate science students, postdoctoral fellows, instructors, professors, thought leaders and mentors — Dave and I have accumulated a comprehensive list of changes the system desperately needs. We don’t have all the answers, but we’ve got ideas.

Over the coming months and in our forthcoming book we hope to explore each of these in turn. Below is a compilation of major policy changes needed to improve academia, which we have gathered into topics and linked to previous posts. In addition to publishing them here for your feedback, we will also be submitting them to the Rescuing Biomedical Research effort, to continue the conversation.

We value reader input on missing (or crazy!) topic areas and perspectives to tackle or refine in the coming year, and look forward to your comments.

Equity in science

  1. We need to address gender disparity in academia.

  1. There needs to be funded parental leave from granting agencies (especially scholarships and fellowships).

  1. We need to address mental health in academia.

Economics of science

  1. We should be investing in people, not projects.
  • Public investment in basic research should be made in people running projects over the money used to run them.
  • Should we cap allowable indirect costs (overhead) to some maximum (eg. 40%) of direct costs?
  • Should we award fellowships/grants to the Principal Investigator, and make them independent of the academic institution so that they can move with the recipient?

[Editor’s Note: The UK represents an excellent case study on the benefits and drawbacks of one model of a direct-to-investigator funding system, and will be reviewed in an upcoming post]

  1. Minimum post-doctoral fellow salaries must be increased to meet cost-of-living and provide equitable returns for professional employment (post-doctoral fellows are NOT students). Yearly salary increase should match rate of inflation.

  1. Academic grants should target early-stage basic/discovery research in academic labs where the Principal Investigator is a full time faculty member. Small business grants should fund early-stage translational research in private company where the Principal Investigator is a full time employee of the Company. Where the PI is also the founder, potential conflict of interests can be managed to support joint-ventures between the academic lab and private company. Clinical grants should fund early-stage clinical studies.

  1. Research grants should not support Principal Investigator salary, which must be covered by the institution.

  1. Post-doctoral fellows must be recognized as employees on principal investigator career trajectory (research stream) not trainees.

This includes creation of a full-time research scientist (staff scientist stream) position that involves switching postdocs to “staff scientists” at a defined time (e.g., 5 years). It also requires the creation of a full-time instructor (teaching stream) position that is ‘different but equal’ to research stream faculty.

  1. Full time teaching at academic institutions should be done primarily by teaching stream faculty employed in full time teaching posts. Guest lectures by specialists are a great way to enhance curriculum. Part time ‘Instructor’ or ‘ad hoc faculty’ positions should be capped to bridge full time faculty availability, not replace it.

[Editor’s Note: Post upcoming]

  1. We need to correct tenure.

While Tenure, as it currently exists, is of value in less research intensive fields and should not be removed from the social sciences, more research intensive fields and academic institutions in general would benefit from a more robust evaluation process that protects Principal Investigators engaging in controversial or counter-culture work but does not retain faculty who no longer teach and whose productivity falls beneath a reasonable standard.

[Editor’s Note: Further posts upcoming]

  1. Public funding of academic research needs to evolve.

The Federal government should create a crowd-funding research platform open to all early-stage academic basic research programs to supplement federal research funding. A review committee/process could be created to validate the legitimacy of submitted programs and to oversee open reporting of project goals and use of funds. This can be supported by a small percentage (10%?) of the program funds raised. Additionally federal funding agencies (CIHR, NIH) could supplement the list of peer-reviewed projects available for public support by contributing their list of ‘fundable but not funded’ research each year. This would allow for more transparency to funding decisions by federal funding agencies and provide more leeway for the federal government to fund less ‘sexy’ but important basic research while allowing equally important but more marketable research to be crowdsourced. Flexibility of funding should be afforded for the most important research (as determined by committee, potentially with input from the public) to ensure it continues to be supported.

[Editor’s Note: This is an interesting idea that will be elaborated on in further upcoming posts]

  1. We should introduce intellectual property option/license deal structures for federally-funded discoveries to favor early-stage commercial spin-outs, and include late-milestone royalties that are used to support future early-stage basic/development research projects, as are typically done in ‘ever green’ funds.

In the United States the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 confirms the ownership of federally funded intellectual property by the federal government but permits universities and hospitals to pursue ownership of any invention made using federal funding in preference to the government doing the same, and was created to spur commercial innovation by academic institutions. In Canada there is no legislation governing the management of intellectual property rights resulting from publicly subsidized research. Today, academic institutions bring in a substantial amount of revenue from federally funded discoveries and warrant revision to return a better deal.

Scientific publication and knowledge translation 

  1. We need to correct peer-reviewed scientific publication.

We need to create a unified publication (and grant) submission system that includes a binding scoring system for peer review and post-acceptance reformatting of articles. All federal grants should cover capped open-access publication costs to ensure public dissemination of federally-funded research and prohibit inflation of publication costs by journals. Research/publications financed by federal grants must be made freely available to the public by journal. This applies also to small business grants supported by federal funds.

  1. Translation and communication of publically-funded science needs to improve.

The Federal government publish a directory of all federally-funded research consisting of lay (1-paragraph) descriptions and directing visitors to institutions/investigators performing the work.

Improving science training and metrics 

  1. We should limit the PhD to 4 years via more active thesis committees.

  1. Institutions should publish yearly graduation completion and employment rates of students in each (research or teaching) stream. The Federal government should publish annual national graduation completion and employment statistics on website.

  1. Career development is ever changing and higher education needs to meet evolving public interest and labor demands.

There needs to be sincere investment in pulling PhDs/postdocs from universities into other careers (non-mandatory!). This involves introduction of graduate students to introductory business, finance, communication, management and education courses, as well as making specialized business, finance, communication, management, and education courses available to post-graduate employees at academic institutions. These must continue to change as public interest and labor demands change.

  1. Federal and academic requirements need to be restructured to increase the involvement of scientists in government.
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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