Monday, October 16, 2017

Researchers, Heal Thy Selves!

          By Brian Orlotti

According to Alan Bernstein, the president and CEO of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), the Canadian scientific and research community needs more than money. It needs a "bold new vision" of how to perform scientific research.

Bernstein at the 2015 Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC), which took place in Ottawa, ON on November 25th - 27th, 2015. As outlined in his Wikipedia entry, Bernstein has received a variety of awards and accolades including "the McLaughlin Medal of the Royal Society of Canada, the Robert L. Noble Prize from the National Cancer Institute of Canada, the Genetics Society of Canada Award of Excellence, the 2001 Australian Society of Medical Research Medal, four honorary degrees, the 2007 Medaille du merite from the Institut de Recherche Clinique de Montreal, the 2008 Gairdner Wightman Award and the Order of Canada in 2002. He is a Senior Fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto. In 2015, Bernstein was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame." Screenshot c/o Canadian Science Policy Centre.

As outlined in his October 12th, 2017 MacLean's post, "It’s time for a bold new vision for Canadian fundamental science," Bernstein made the point that aside from the need for more funding, the Canadian research field has large barriers to entry, especially for young researchers.

He questioned why ambitious young researchers would choose a career in science when the odds of securing a grant are only between 8-12% in health research, or when average funding for physical sciences has remained nearly unchanged for the past decade at less than $35,000 per year and is lower today than in the early 2000s. Bernstein warned that Canada risks losing an entire generation of scientists unless it finds ways to attract and fund the best young researchers.

Bernstein provided two examples for Canada to learn from.
  • The first was the last "golden age" of Canadian science funding i.e 1997-2007 which saw large across the board funding increases. According to Bernstein, "that transformation wasn’t just about money: It also profoundly changed the landscape for research in Canada. New agencies to fund research infrastructure, health research and genome science were created as were new programs like the Canada Research Chairs, the Indirect Costs Program and the Canada First Research Excellence Fund. These changes were not easy; real change rarely is. For example, the creation of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) in 2000 was the culmination of an intense and difficult national discussion that lasted almost two years."
  • The second example was more recent, more difficult and occurred in the UK, whose government recently introduced major changes including the merging of eight separate agencies into a single entity overseen by a single board and chief executive; UK Research and Innovation. In essence, the second example produced a fast-moving system composed of increasingly international, interdisciplinary, and collaborative units operating under a centralized structure. 
Bernstein noted that the UK model appeared too ambitious for Canadians given that the committee that wrote the 2017 Canada's Fundamental Science Review, which was headed by Canadian physician David Naylor, rejected similar changes for Canada as being "too risky."

But he thinks we should do it anyway.

Bernstein did agree with the crux of the 2017 Naylor report’s findings, namely that Canada’s scientific research structure suffers from 20 years of balkanization and bloat, with too many agencies (in traditional academic style) at each other’s throats with varying cultures, rules, grant levels and partner requirements.

This disunity and lack of coordination has compromised the Canadian research establishment’s ability to plan and act strategically.

Bernstein stated that Canada’s research system must place far more emphasis on interdisciplinary and international research teams, rather than the current individualist "superstar/prima dona" oriented approach.

This notion has met resistance from senior researchers who fear encroachment on their individual fiefdoms. Bernstein himself sees no conflict between individual  and team-based research, arguing that the Canadian system should utilize both.

There are hundreds of academic space science conferences going on every month in Canada and around the world. Most focus not just on publicizing and promoting new research and developments, but also depend on driving revenue generating and fee paying undergrad admissions to the faculties and organizations being promoted, whether or not there are jobs available for the surviving graduates and post docs. This particular, just concluded event was sponsored by a variety of universities, colleges, institutes, associations and private organizations. After all, low cost, well trained and pliable help is hard to find. Graphic c/o MSSA

While streamlining bureaucracy and bringing squabbling fiefdoms into line are positive steps, the Canadian research field must take more immediate steps to make itself more attractive to young talent.

After all, we live in a time when the tech industry is using multiple incentives to entice new talent (bonuses, catered meals, gym memberships, paid training) and senior academics draw six figure salaries at their respective institutions, but Canadian graduate students live in poverty and squalor..

Researchers heal thy selves.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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