Facilitating the Transition – new posts at University Affairs

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Hello readers!

If you didn’t catch it already, we have relocated the blog and this month and have posted our first set of articles:

  1. Reality TV invading university – Thumbs down to the three minute thesis
  2. A call to arms
  3. Networks – the big kind – and how they drive Canadian science
  4. Show me the money!
  5. Our blog for early career scientists – hello to UA readers!

I’ll try to do this each month until it seems that people have fully switched over.  We’ll bring you back to scienceadvocacy.org at the tail end of summer with our “resource pages” which will collate helpful resources from our last few years of research in a more user friendly way, but all of our blog posts will be at University Affairs.

  1. All new Black Hole blog posts will be posted at http://www.universityaffairs.ca/the-black-hole/
  2. All our archived posts will remain on http://scienceadvocacy.org/Blog/

Contact/following options:

email contact[at]scienceadvocacy.orgTwitter and Facebook.

NEW RSS feed and web address

If you get an email each time we post, this will continue as it has before.  I will also post updates on my personal LinkedIN and Facebook accounts.

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The Black Hole is Moving – Come join us at University Affairs

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Last month, we were approached by University Affairs magazine (The award-winning magazine and website, published by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada) to move the Black Hole blog to their site.

After some lengthy discussions, we are excited to announce that we will be moving the Black Hole and hope that our readers will follow us and also find the other items on their site informative and useful.  Currently, 4 other blogs run from the UA website and we are honoured to join their ranks:

What’s going to happen?

  1. All new Black Hole blog posts will be posted at http://www.universityaffairs.ca/the-black-hole/
  2. All our archived posts will remain on http://scienceadvocacy.org/Blog/
  3. The scienceadvocacy.org site will be revamped over the coming months to be a resource site and will no longer be a blog.  Stay tuned for updates and please send your suggestions of what you think would be useful to provide on such a site.

Contact/following options:

Things that will stay the same:

email contact[at]scienceadvocacy.orgTwitter and Facebook.

Things that will change:  RSS feed and web address

If you get an email each time we post, this will continue as it has before.  I will also post updates on my personal LinkedIN and Facebook accounts.

Thanks to everyone who helped to get this site going (especially our guest bloggers and those providing regular comments), I hope you’ll find the change easy and continue to contribute.

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More time doing research, less time applying for money – sounds great, right?

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As I’ve mentioned on here before – if you are involved in health research in Canada, you should read the CIHR’s proposed changes to its granting system.  This is a chance to assess and give your opinion before things are set in stone.  I can appreciate that it is long and somewhat tedious in sections, but there are critical changes being made that will have long reaching effects on the health research community.

I’ve already outlined in detail the distinction between the programmatic and project grants with the main distinction being:

Programmatic = long term, larger grants for individual groups, based on previous track record

Project = shorter term, smaller grants focused on the project

Overall, I think the CIHR’s intentions in this proposal are good, but some aspects lack clarity and could be the source of much future consternation.  In particular, I am concerned about the rollout process, the funding of mid-career researchers, and the prohibiting of holding multiple grants.

First off, let me applaud the CIHR for making some bold moves on the grant evaluation process – I hope they adopt them all.  Doing the bulk of the work remotely and incorporating Internet-based discussions is clearly a positive step forward for sparing precious time and energy.  Triaging applications at early stages will have two positive outcomes – letting unsuccessful applicants move on to alternate sources more quickly and saving their time by not making them prepare full applications.  Exactly what criteria will help a grant avoid the chopping block was not made clear, and this will likely be met with some growing pains in the first few competitions – overall though, great move.  The second, and arguably more important, step is to try and set some sort of standard in the peer review process rather than a reviewer’s gut feeling about a proposal.  The proposed College of Reviewers sounds great, though I am a little unsure about how formalized this process will be.  Hopefully nothing too onerous, but either way, the CIHR will need to be prepared for many disgruntled experienced reviewers who “don’t need training”.

Secondly, I think the idea to have the project stream evaluate grants based on project quality alone in the first stage is a great idea.  I hope they really mean that it will be exclusively on the project quality and all researcher information will be blinded - the blinder the better  This is exactly the type of mechanism that would see poor proposals from groups with established track records getting tossed in the bin, and it couldn’t be done sooner.  Clearly those that make it through will still need a good track record and CV to acquire the funding, but either way this is a great step forward to ensuring that good science gets pursued.

However, all is not clear in the CIHR proposal and I feel some whitewashing has been done in other areas described below:

No Project For You

Something that must have been flagged in feedback sessions across the country is the proposal to prevent program grant holders from obtaining project grants.  In principle, I can see the point (wanting to share the wealth around to more researchers) and as a junior researcher it’s hard to complain as this might well be the money I shoot for.  I have several worries though.  First, an average program grant of $300,000/yr does not go as far as one might think, especially if it’s spread across 2 or 3 co-investigators.  Salaries alone could quickly consume the entire grant with no other source of CIHR monies.  Secondly, this could very easily stymie collaborative research efforts.  Just imagine you want to work with another lab group that has just made a technological breakthrough in your field and they hold a program grant – no project for you.

Cheaping out?

CIHR makes bold statements about how program funding will let investigators go for multiple years without having to worry about funding, comparing themselves to Howard Hughes and the Wellcome Trust.  I wasn’t able to find the average HHMI, but I know that the Wellcome Trust packages are substantially higher with the average programme grant being nearly ~$700,000/yr and even senior fellowships to new group leaders being valued at over $500,000/yr.

If the CIHR is serious about longterm support of good groups in an effort to avoid writing additional grants, they are going to have to award enough money to actually get things done.  Otherwise, these groups will still have to write additional proposals to get the remaining work funded.

Focus on Institutional Support 

I’m not sure exactly what is going to happen here, but I worry about the weight put on institutional support – is this a CIHR bullying tactic to free up researchers time to do research or is it simply a question of can the work be done at the institution where it is being proposed?  I’m sure details will follow, but I worry that it might be the former and not the latter that would continue the trend of the last number of years away from rewarding researchers who teach well and discourage such contributions.

Integrated Knowledge Translation

I am no stranger to appreciating the value of knowledge translation, but in all of my experiences so far (and I stand to be corrected), when this type of activity is forced, it rarely works out well.  Integrating these elements will feel like a chore to some researchers and can result in a colossal waste of time.  I’m all for CIHR pushing inter-disciplinary and translational aspects of projects, but if the proposed changes want to require this type of activity in order to be funded I suspect we’re in for a substantial backlash.

The best examples of successful knowledge translation I have seen are when the motivation is equally present on both sides and the work starts occurring well before any grant gets written as a consequence of this motivation.  The example that frightens me is the Genome Canada mandate that was meant to include science outreach in all of its program grants.  Basically, many research groups had no idea what to do – but they knew they had to do something – and many efforts were duplicated or misled into delivering sub-par science outreach programming.  How many research groups will look at the CIHR’s new proposal and invite a medical doctor in their field who may or may not be keen on the research to be a part of a grant idea they simply do not care about?  I suspect many… and this scares me.  There must be a better way.

Swimming with the big fish 

It seems to me that CIHR’s proposals will benefit early career researchers and more established senior researchers, but the big gap seems to be when a researcher first enters the mid-career stage.  Will they be competitive for program grants against the juggernauts in their field if track record and individual scientist investments are the name of the game?  I recognize that CIHR repeatedly mentions the need to monitor changes and hope that my worries about the mid tier of researchers are unwarranted.

Overall – I give the CIHR big credit for undertaking some bold initiatives.  But I hope they will, above all else, retain flexibility in their grant evaluations.  There cannot be a single prescribed method for how to do science or how to best translate that science into something that benefits the public.

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CIHR Updates: Budget 2012 and Science Policy Fellowships

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Today’s post is actually two mini-posts – one on CIHR’s response to Budget 2012 and the other on the announcement of their Science Policy Fellowship program.

Response to Budget 2012

Earlier this month, CIHR President Alain Beaudet released a message concerning the federal budget and its impact on CIHR.  Amongst the standard platitudes, a few interesting statements are made that I’d like to highlight for our readers.  First, it is  great to see support for tackling the mental health crisis in Canada – while the details were scant on exactly how this support would be evidenced, it is absolutely a top priority issue.  Secondly, in the wake of 10% overall cuts to CIHR, Beaudet says ”the budget firmly stated that CIHR’s programming in support of basic research, student scholarships and industry-related research initiatives and collaborations has been maintained” – this is good in some respects, but does make me worry about where the 10% cuts are meant to come from.   Finally, he closes with a plea to contribute to something I’ve highlighted on the site before - CIHR’s proposed reforms to its operating grants and peer review.  Now is the time to have your say on CIHR programs with the April 30th deadline for accepting input.  My next post will take a more in-depth look at the proposals and their potential impacts on health research in Canada and I hope that any health researchers reading this will consider voicing their opinion too.

(If you are interested in much less rosy pictures of the budget, do read Professor Ghoussoub’s article last month on the budget and its implications for universities and Hannah Hoag’s article in Nature slamming the federal budget for its negative impact on basic research.)

Science Policy Fellowship Program

An exciting development following on last year’s opportunities for those considering a career in science policy or even for those simply curious about how it all works inside government when it comes to making policy based on evidence.  We’ve written before about careers in the public service and the importance of understanding how policy making works.  These fellowships have the goal of “nurturing critical links between policy makers and external researchers in support of evidence based public policy” and are designed to allow successful applicants the opportunity to become policy fellows for a short time.  This gives the fellows the chance to see how policy making works and gives policy makers access to experts with highly specialised knowledge in particular fields.  Currently, the vast majority (if not all) of these fellowships are in health policy and at Health Canada.

It would be great to hear from those who may have had one of these fellowships to give our readers a sense of what they’d be getting into by undertaking one – if you know someone who has/had one, please do not hesitate to put them in touch with us.





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A Difficult Pill to Swallow: The Harsh Realities of a 15% Funding Rate

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A country’s biomedical advancement and innovation is intimately linked to its investment in academic research (Measure for Measure: Chemical Research & Development Powers the U.S. Innovation Engine). Funding for research comes almost entirely from government and private donors (Stossel, T.P., The Research Marketplace: A Little Grantsmanship Manual, Fourth Edition. 2011.), and is as value-based, bottom-up and pork- and crony-free as it gets – although there is admittedly significant room for improvement. In North America approximately two-thirds of academic biomedical research is supported through federal funding agencies such as the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) (Stossel, T.P., The Research Marketplace: A Little Grantsmanship Manual, Fourth Edition. 2011.). The mainstays of NIH/CIHR support are grants made to individual investigators for reasonably broad research projects, and researchers compete for these funds through a rigorous process of peer review. Nevertheless, the lack of sustained growth for both the NIH and CIHR has forced success rates for primary operating grants to drop significantly over the last decade to approximately 12% (NIH, R01) and 15% (CIHR Operating Grant); Fiscal Year 2011. This means that only a very small percentage of outstanding applications for research projects are being actively supported to tackle the multitude of health needs in these countries (Research Funding: Making the Cut). As a result, a majority of highly-rated research proposals will not be funded, opening the field for countries like Germany, India and China that are boasting funding rates of 47% and higher to take the lead (University Research Funding: The United States is Behind and Falling).

While there are serious financial and moral implications apart from the immediate repercussion to trainees (which I will be addressing in a future post, and for which I refer you to the following paper: Peer Review, Program Officers and Science Funding), amongst the hardest hit are research fellows. I am no exception. I received my bachelor’s degree from McMaster University and my doctorate from the University of British Columbia. While Canada subsidized my education, the desire to seek additional training at a top-notch research institute abroad inspired my decision to accept a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School, where larger research investments meant I could more effectively compete for research dollars. Four years, 16 papers and 1 major grant later I find myself struggling to find a faculty position back home, and questioning my decision to remain in academia for all of the reasons outlined in David Cyranoski et al.’s 2011 Nature Editorial, Education: The PhD factory. For some additional reading on this article and the others in the Nature series – see Dave’s previous entry here. Relatively flat funding rates in North America have meant that universities, hospitals, and research institutes have been forced to implement hiring freezes of young scientists into faculty positions, effectively stranding these people in temporary, low-paying jobs with limited prospects of advancement. Not only does this risk exporting our scientists abroad, but will also impact industry, which relies heavily on biomedical research, both in terms of scientific innovation and the researchers they help train. Canadians call this the ‘brain drain,’ and I am feeling like a statistic.

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Quarterly Summary: Jonathan Thon starts with a flourish

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We were thrilled this quarter to welcome Dr. Jonathan Thon to the Black Hole in the capacity of regular contributor.    He’s enthusiastically launched himself into the online blogging world with several articles and I’ve tried to scatter in a few along the way.  If you fancy doing something similar, we’re always open to hearing from new potential bloggers that want to have a one time (or regular) say on the issue(s) that they are most concerned with.  Contact me at contact@scienceadvocacy.org if you are keen.

Also, The Black Hole will be making a few changes in the coming quarter including building a resource page that will catalogue some of our most popular links and stats for use by our readers – we hope this will help older posts stay fresh.

For now, here’s a recap of what was done this quarter:

Articles Written



CIHR Trainee

Our Other Activities

Dave has continued to write for the Stem Cell Network blog publishing three articles this quarter:

Discussion Highlights

Popular Posts this Quarter

  1. A deeper look into the “80% of PhDs who do not become professors” (2,513)
  2. 2011 Taxes for Post Docs: At least we know the rules this year (1,676)
  3. 2010 Canadian Taxes: Did you get your T2202 and T4a? (1,108)
  4. Academia vs. Industry: A former Postdoc’s perspective (1,070)
  5. Who do universities want to hire – scientists or politicians? (782)
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Biomedical Research and Broken Clocks: All the Parts, but No Instructions

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The day-to-day rigors of academic biomedical research are difficult to appreciate, and it is necessary that scientists share their perspective of the knowledge market with politicians and government representatives who are burdened with making difficult decisions on our behalf. Unlike the airline industry that also does research and development (R&D) to create safer, lighter and more efficient airplanes, academic medicine does not build R&D into the pricing of its services. This is because biomedical research is a surprisingly random process that depends on chance observations, unexpected results, and seemingly unrelated outcomes. As a result, downstream applications of research are almost impossible to predict at the outset, and necessitate an altogether different model of cost recovery.

Imagine a broken a clock with all of its parts, and no operator’s manual to describe how any of them fit together—let alone what they do. Clearly the most cost-effective way to fix this clock is to locate the malfunctioning component(s), presumably by comparing it to an identical functioning model, but where do we start? Without a comprehensive understanding of a clock’s inner workings no one place is better than another, and assuming time is of the essence, we might want to employ multiple investigators, each starting at a different point, to come to a conclusion faster. Biomedical research results in improved models of human biology (blueprints) that scientists use to understand how systems fall out of alignment (disease), and establish targeted therapies to correct them. Compared to the clock, the human body contains many orders of magnitude more parts (all of them smaller), and given the expense of the highly specialized equipment required to study it, establishing a solid understanding of pathology to direct drug development becomes cost-prohibitive.

To subsidize national biomedical research endeavors, projected costs are spread among citizens in the form of taxes, and distributed to multiple academic institutes as operating grants. Investments in research lead to licensed technologies that create jobs and revenues far in excess of the grants that support them, with every dollar invested in chemical research and development producing, on average, $2 in corporate operating income over 6 years – an average annual return of 17% after taxes (Measuring Up: Research & Development Counts for the Chemical Industry). In this economic climate, you would be hard-pressed to find a better deal!

How then do we fund it?

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CIHR Grant Reform: Speak now or forever hold your peace

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Over the last months, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) have conducted an extensive review of their grant programs and have released a document to describe these changes.  In a demonstration of top tier accountability, they have opened a multi-stage and multi-faceted consultation of the programs that I strongly encourage anybody who has any visions of applying for CIHR to read and comment on.  I will follow up this post with my own comments, but for now, I want to point out a few key components so readers know what is on the table and how important it is to read, understand, and (before it’s too late) suggest changes to.  

See President Alain Beaudet’s video message and note the problems that they are attempting to address in the picture below:

When reading the document, readers are asked to consider:

  • What are the strengths of the design that is being considered? 
  • What are the gaps in this design that CIHR should address to ensure a successful implementation?  
  • What challenges do you anticipate as a researcher/peer reviewer in adopting these changes? 

Importantly, these changes will NOT change the training programs which will “continue to be a part of CIHR?s open research funding strategy to support a sustainable pipeline of talented new health researchers into the health research enterprise”.  While no changes are set for graduate students and postdocs, major reforms are set for early/new investigators, so again, please review these proposed changes.

Loosely, the CIHR breaks their proposed new funding structure into two categories: Programmatic and Project-based

According to the document, “programmatic funding supports a broad program of research over a number of years, usually at a fixed rate, but sometimes varying in relation to the type of research and the costs involved. Typically awarded to established investigators, it is considered the best way to support some types of research and researchers, and one of the best models to achieve high-quality, high-impact results. Several recognized funding agencies, such as the Wellcome Trust and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, have successfully implemented programmatic funding schemes with positive results.”

Project-based, however, “supports a defined piece of research with a beginning, middle, and end point. Typically awarded to applicants with the best ideas, this model is well positioned to support incremental research projects, innovative and original research projects, as well as early stage and/or potentially high-risk research projects. Project-based funding has been successfully implemented by the National Institutes of Health (e.g., NIH Research Project Grant Program – R01), and the Gates Foundation (e.g., Grand Challenges in Global Health competition).” 

They have laid out their reasons for both styles and proposed multiple changes to the peer review process that will evaluate them in an attempt to address the problems identified above 

Of particular note for early career researchers, the project scheme will focus on “the quality of the idea with limited information about the track record of the applicant. This would remove some biases/barriers (real or perceived) for new/early career investigators and will be important for CIHR to monitor.”  As for the programmatic scheme, CIHR is “considering a specific stream to support new/early career investigators to ensure that these researchers have an opportunity to build promising programs of research.” 

With respect to peer review, the goal is to reduce the amount of time a reviewer spends reviewing, discussing, and providing feedback on an application by streamlining the process in a number of ways which include:

  • A multi-phased competition process that involves a two-stage screening process prior to face-to-face review. 
  • structured review criteria would provide peer reviewers with clearly defined review criteria and relevant application information in order to evaluate success.
  • Conducting internet-assisted discussions to avoid travel to Ottawa and to facilitate international expert review by supporting cost-effective access to international research leaders. 

Some additional tidbits that popped out in my first run through the document:

  1. Foundation/Programmatic Research grants are intended to support the direct costs of research and do not include a salary support component. 
  2. CIHR has heard concerns regarding the transition to, and the renewal of, Foundation/Programmatic Research grants. At this time, CIHR is considering mechanisms that would provide transitional support to researchers. For those transitioning to the Foundation/Programmatic Research Scheme, CIHR is considering a process to roll-up existing Project grants into the new Foundation/Programmatic Research funding mechanism. For those who are unsuccessful with grant renewal, transitional support may be provided. 
  3. A study conducted in Australia last year estimated the total cost of applications to be over $17,000 (Australian dollars) per application submitted. Although CIHR has not conducted a detailed study, it is estimated that the costs in Canada are similar. 

So – get reading folks – this may be the one time that you have a chance to give your input on the structure of health funding in Canada.  Make your voice heard and please feel free to light up the comments board with your thoughts which I will fold into a response to the CIHR at the end of the month.

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Bring home the (scientific) troops!

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Read related entries to this post:

Repatriating young Canadian scientists at the highest levels to establish new competitive technologies in the health sciences is essential to strengthening Canadian scientific and technological research and development. Canada is in the unique position to be a global leader in this field, and has already trained the next generation of thought-leaders who will carry medical science through the 21st century. It is important we bring them home. Investing in infrastructure to propel Canadian medical science to the forefront of research innovation will support our future economic growth and prosperity, and improve the health and well-being of all Canadians.

While the argument for the government to prioritize an industry where the number of clinical advances, drug developments and cures is proportional to total research investment is not a difficult case to make, it is important that we make it. The day-to-day rigours of academic biomedical research are difficult to appreciate, and it is necessary that scientists share their perspective of the knowledge market with politicians and government representatives who make these decisions on our behalf.

In the interest of advocacy the above arguments were sent to the office of the Right Honourable Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada (80 Wellington Street Ottawa, ON. K1A 0A2.); to whom I encourage all Canadian citizens to write with their issue.  The letter was forwarded to the Ministers of Health and Industry and received responses from Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and Director General Shane Williamson of Industry Canada:

Response #1

Dear Dr. Thon:

The office of the Prime Minister has forwarded to me a copy of your correspondence of June 13, 2011, concerning support for Canadian scientific and technological research. The Government of Canada recognizes the importance of supporting Canada’s top health researchers as demonstrated in previous budgets.

Budget 2010 provided $45 million over five years to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to establish the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships program. The program will enable top researchers to develop their leadership potential and position themselves for success as research leaders of tomorrow, ultimately contributing to Canada’s economic, social and research-based growth.

These investments build on those outlined in Budget 2009, which invested in higher learning by providing an additional $87.5 million over three years for Canada Graduate Scholarships, $35 million of which is being directed to the CIHR to fund scholarships.

The total funds are providing an additional 1,000 master’s scholarships and 500 doctoral scholarships.  Budget 2011 introduced additional measures, including $53.5 million over five years for 10 new Canada Excellence Research Chairs, up to $100 million in matching funds for a Brain Research Canada Fund and $10 million for the indirect costs of research. As a result of these investments, Canada has a first-class postdoctoral program, funded at a level to attract the best and brightest from around the world.

Please be assured that our government will continue to support outstanding Canadian research scientists like you.

I appreciate having had this opportunity to respond to your concerns.

Response #2

Dear Dr. Thon:

Thank you for your letter of June 13, 2011, addressed to the Right Honourable Stephen Harper, providing your views on support for Canadian scientists. The Prime Minister’s Office forwarded your letter to the Minister of Industry, Christian Paradis, as this issue falls within his portfolio.  Minister Paradis has asked me to respond on his behalf.

I appreciate your thoughtful consideration of the science and technology (S&T) enterprise in Canada. As noted in your letter, science, technology and innovation are critical drivers of economic growth and national well-being. The Government of Canada recognizes that investments in S&T, and research and development (R&D) are key to fostering the innovation, talent, and ideas that enable modern economies to improve their competitiveness and productivity.  Guided by the federal S&T strategy, Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage, the government’s investments in S&T in recent years continue to strengthen Canada’s position in the world as a leading supporter of research. For 2010-2011, total federal S&T expenditures surpassed $11 billion, including $2.8 billion for R&D expenditures in the higher-education sector.

These investments are a central component of our ongoing efforts to address Canada’s social and economic challenges, and have helped rank Canada ahead of all other countries in the G-7 when it comes to higher-education research spending intensity.

As you indicate in your letter, talented, skilled and creative people bring innovation to life. The government currently supports a suite of research talent programs through the federal granting councils that enable our higher-education institutions to attract and retain top research talent, from graduate students, through emerging researchers, to established, top-level researchers. This suite of programs includes: the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships program; the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships program, the Canada Research Chairs program; and, the Canada Excellence Research Chairs program. Each of these programs has been established to enhance our competitiveness in the knowledge-based economy, position Canada as a global research leader, and train the next generation of highly-skilled workers.

The federal government has demonstrated its ongoing commitment to S&T through its considerable investments. Indeed, funding for S&T was increased significantly in Budget 2011, against a general backdrop of fiscal restraint. Your suggestions will help inform future policy development as we implement the federal S&T Strategy and take further steps to enhance Canada’s standing as a destination of choice for research, innovation and higher learning.

Once again, thank you for sharing your experiences and offering your thoughtful comments. I wish you all the best in your future endeavours.


“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Winston Churchill

We’d love to hear what you think….


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2012 Taxes for Postdocs: Dredging up the Past

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A landmark decision was made late last month by the Ontario Labour Relations Board regarding the status of postdoctoral fellows.  Jesse Greener, President of the University of Toronto’s Postdoc Association has recently, and nicely, summarised the impacts of this ruling on the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars discussion board.

I am writing this because I want to make sure that all the facts are out there, as best as I can represent them. As you probably already know, the Ontario Labour Relations Board issued a decision on January 20 that states Postdoctoral Fellows are employees of the universities where they work…this decision is binding on all Ontario universities, not just U of T…

Jesse goes on to discuss the implications of the ruling, with a particular focus on what this means for postdoctoral fellows and their employment rights.  The reason that I’ve chosen to have this story lead this year’s blog entry on taxes is because it is the result of the frustration felt by postdoctoral fellows over the clarification of the scholarship exemption and whether or not postdocs are trainees or employees. Status across the country is highly variable and is one of the main issues that CAPS faces in higher level discussions with universities, the government, and funding agencies.

If you are interested in our previous discussions on these matters, please do visit the following entries which include the pros and cons of employment status and how you can deal with your tax as a postdoc in Canada:

The practical information has not changed much for this year’s filing and is summed up in 2011 Taxes for Post Docs: At least we know the rules this year.  Basically, postdoctoral income by grant, scholarship, fellowship, or any other means is taxable in Canada.  If you are paid off a research grant, there may be some remit for claiming research related expenses, but you definitely do not qualify for the scholarship exemption.

Of additional interest is this morning’s “Daybreak Montreal” episode on CBC radio which featured an interview with a Montreal postdoc who, as was the case for many postdocs in Quebec, was hired with the understanding that their postdoctoral stipend would be tax exempt.  Basically, the CRA maintains that either the university or the individual misinterpreted the federal tax policy and they have simply corrected the issue.  The Quebec government still bins postdoctoral fellows as research trainees that have student status which is reflected in its tax policy, and places postdocs in an even more confusing situation.  This is especially problematic for international postdocs who have not grown up with the Canadian tax system and are trying to make decisions about whether or not to contribute to the Canadian research enterprise.  This final point is further underscored by the McGill Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies Martin Kreiswirth who notes that this CRA decision negatively impacts a university’s ability to recruit and retain postdocs, 62% of whom are international at McGill.  This will be a tough battle for postdocs who find themselves in this situation.

Overall, I feel that the key points remain the same:

  1. Whether through tax incentives or not, Canada needs to find a way to increase the take-home pay of the average Canadian postdoctoral fellow if it wishes to remain a competitive option for international postdocs.  Numerous other countries (e.g.: Australia, Switzerland, United Kingdom) have substantially higher remuneration packages.
  2. Postdocs need to have a defined status – trainee or employee.  It doesn’t have to be the same for all postdocs, but it needs to be clearly spelled out before any position is accepted.  At least then, people will know where they stand and what they are signing up for.

In the meantime, I would encourage people to follow the CAPS website and be in touch with your local Postdoc association.

 2011 Taxes for Post Docs: At least we know the rules this year

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