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The Black Hole

Quarterly Summary: “CAP”ital Action and Effective Communication

BY DAVID KENT | APR 01 2010

This quarter has been a very active one for the Black Hole site, marked most notably by a tripling of site traffic in the month of March. Admittedly, most of this increased traffic was due to Budget 2010 and the sheer panic it invoked in the post doc community. Fortunately, the momentum that I hoped would continue has certainly done just that. Two prime examples of this forward movement over the last quarter have been:

1. The Canada Foundation for Innovation model of autonomy and flexibility was named “world’s best practice” and the contribution to developing both the quality and quantity of research infrastructure was highlighted. The matching investment in people needs to be the focus going forward, let’s hope the policymakers realize this. They have built it… will the scientists come?
If you are a prospective post doctoral research fellow, the answer right now is “probably not” as a flurry of bad press surrounds Canada as a place to complete this part of one’s training. It’s curious because Canada definitely has excellent core components in place for research success with great equipment and buildings, internationally heralded expertise, access to other scientists and patient samples, etc etc. So what’s wrong with the picture? The answer lies in the second burst of momentum from this quarter

2. What exactly is a post doctoral fellow? – in Canada there is certainly no easy answer and it seems that they are classified as trainees, students, or employees depending on which status benefits them the least. In Britain and Australia, a post doc certainly leans toward the employee side of the coin with good wages (often 25-35% higher than Canadian post docs), benefits similar to other employees at the institute, pay taxes, etc etc. In Canada, however, post doctoral fellows often get terrible wages (78% earn less than $40,000 after 10+ years of university training), benefits are inconsistent at best and often absent (though UBC just made an impressive announcement about PDF benefits), and Budget 2010 proposes to make post doctoral fellowships taxable.
The momentum from the Canadian Association of Post-Doctoral Scholars in recent weeks has produced the following:

– An FAQ entitled “What is a post doctoral fellow?”
– An online petition to maintain the competitiveness of a postdoctoral research career in Canada
– A campaign that has gotten recognition for post doctoral fellows in Parliament

Great to see this kind of effort being put forth to improve the trainee environment in Canada. Let’s hope we get some results!
This quarter also saw The Black Hole become even more connected as exemplified by our growing toolbar of excellent links to check out including recent additions of:

Canadian Programs
CIHR Science to Business Program – Program to encourage and enable individuals who have obtained a recent health-related PhD to pursue an MBA
The Science Creative Quarterly – UBC based online collection of scientific articles that are spiced up for a general audience

Excellent organizations/resources for Canada to learn from
The Royal Society – The UK’s national academy of science which is leaps and bounds ahead of the Royal Society of Canada when it comes to public and governmental interaction
The Society of Biology– A whopping 80,000 members who support the strong presence of biology in academia, industry, education and research

Other blogs of interest
Margin Notes – University Affairs blogger Leo Charbonneau tackles many of the institutional issues that are discussed heavily on this site – great insights and wonderfully in touch with the hottest topics.
rENNISance Woman – Self described Cancer Research grant wrangler Cath Ennis and her thoughts form a frequently updated Nature Network blog worth reading!

As for blog entries, Beth has been squirreling away on entries related to the theoretical (What is Science? and Evaluation vs. Research) and the very practical (Talking Science to Non-Scientists and Community Collaboration) sides of science. She also introduced us to the CIHRs Science to Business program which aims to equip PhDs in the medical sciences with MBAs.

I’ve been (again!) a little less focused and was certainly side-tracked in Budget season with entries related to taxes, moving forward from the budget, and the CAPS campaign.

The story of how DNA and genetics became buzz words on everyone’s lips is one that I often share with people about the importance and long term impact that public outreach can have (especially when it comes to a general willingness to support research in the area) – this tipped off two entries (The Least Work Principle and
Getting Involved in Science and Society) and was followed up with an entry on my current pet peeve in Britain which is going to consistently underwhelming climate change related talks.

Other entries on the lack of science policy in Canada and the importance of scholarships and networking to one’s future career generated good buzz, but also resulted in a strong criticism of our blog and other blogs for being far too focused on complaining about the situation. While politely disagreeing with this being the case for the Black Hole site, I have made a mental note (and followed up with physical entries!) to give credit where credit is due on the many great things happening in the country and continue to keep an extremely open mind to future solutions.

Hope you’ll all continue to read and contribute, it’s been a fun six months so far!

PS: If you’re interested in writing a guest blog entry or a regular blog column, please do get in touch.

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 / April 10, 2010 at 19:57

    Thank you very much for the list of websites ! These are amazing resources for a postdoctoral fellow (or PhD student or new faculty) to browse and learn from.
    I would suggest the University affairs website (http://www.universityaffairs.ca) as another excellent resource for Canadian postdocs and academic hopefuls 🙂
    For Science Policy, we do have a Canada specific (http://www.sciencecanada.blogspot.com/) website, which also has a ton of interesting links !
    For keeping matters in focus, I would refrain from any discussion of polarizing topics such as Climate Change (or the lack of it), as it is a political/economic rather than purely scientific issue in my (and many others) opinion.
    Keep up the good work and all the best !!

  2. Dave / April 11, 2010 at 08:54

    Hey SubC,
    The Margin Notes blog is based on UA’s website and there is actually another one there (by Carolyn Steele called Career Sense which actually just put out an interesting piece for PhD holders that want to leave the academy and the need to “step down” in order to go up. So yes, an excellent resource for opinions as well as help for those making such choices now.
    I’ve been away from the country since October and while I do my best to keep up with all things Canada, I only recently heard from a few colleagues that climate change skepticism is rampant and growing in Canada.
    As you can imagine, I disagree with your last comment about valuing the “winners” like Canada in climate change. First of all, I don’t see Canada as a clear cut winner as the economic benefit for Canadians has severe social tradeoffs in the North where global warming is already changing people’s way of life. Secondly, most of these “economic benefits” are based on the same models that are decried as fallacious by climate change skeptics.
    So yes… fair enough, you have me on this…it is polarizing. From one point of view, I can definitely say I am not against polarizing topics for this site, but the polarizing bit here probably isn’t the science (which I think we can agree states that the globe is indeed warming), nor does the main relevance fall particularly under the banner of “issues affecting science trainees”. From another POV though, the reason behind the CC article being on this site was to make people aware that scientists have been (and should continue to be) involved in the dissemination of their work and are very rarely if ever equipped with any skills of how to do this. It is especially important for two reasons in the CC debate: 1) it does have massive political, economic, and social consequences and 2) the doubt cast on the scientific community in recent months.
    Thanks for the comment, positive remarks, and links to great sites though – always good!

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