Science and nationalism – how does Canada fund early career scientists?

I’ve been debating whether or not to write a post about my recent NSERC experience, mostly because in doing so I may sound like I’m whining. I promise I’m not. I’m just trying to help others understand how science is funded in Canada, and help other young Canadian scientists navigate the complexities and difficulties of building a scientific career. Maybe a sharp politician or bureaucrat will read this and something might change? Nah I’m dreaming about that… but I do promise I’m not whining, just want to put this story out there because I know there are at least two more people in my position, and maybe we can form a support group or something. I’m fortunate to have continuing funding from my current lab, and we have a super strong NSF proposal in review right now to continue the awesome work we’ve been doing. Science will go on without support from my home country. Here’s the story:

I recently received results from the Banting Fellowship competition, a postdoctoral award that pays a young scientist’s salary for two years to conduct advanced research after completion of a PhD. The competition is unusual because unlike regular NSERC awards, this one is not separated by discipline – biochemists, geneticists, engineers of all kinds, mathematicians, physicists and geologists compete for the same 24 awards each year. Interestingly, in the ~5 year history of the program, a geologist had never won the award (there have been two or three awardees studying modern climate, surface water, and groundwater that broadly might be grouped into Earth sciences, but nobody who regularly looks at rocks, or thinks about Earth’s history before the Holocene has won this award, which seems odd in such a natural-resource-rich country). That is, until this year, when I placed in the top 24. I opened the “Competition Results” PDF, saw the high scores, and was ecstatic. I’d worked hard on this proposal “The Geological History of Oxygen* ” (can you believe the amount of oxygen in the air we breathe has changed through Earth history and we know practically nothing about it? Sort of important to understand how oxygen might be affected by climate change…), and given my recent work in the oilsands that has recently been published and getting reasonable amounts of attention from industry and the press, believed that I had a great chance of winning this fellowship. To score so high was a great feeling, and it was nice to have some success in a business that successes are few and far between. What this meant for me was two more years of funding at Harvard to actually carry out this research (the first year of my postdoc I spent building and testing a new laser instrument to measure oxygen isotope ratios). Then I read the second PDF, “notification of decision”…

Please note that the proportion of Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships that may be awarded annually to individuals who apply in collaboration with a foreign institution is capped at 25% overall. While your high ranking would normally achieve funding, due to this 25% cap we are unable to offer you an award at this time.

Crushed doesn’t begin to describe how I felt that day. I’m someone who’s been rejected for about 100 proposals along the way, and usually handle rejection letters pretty well, this one was different. Now fair is fair, the rules about foreign held awards are set beforehand, and I’m under no delusion that the 23rd (or 4th, or 15th) ranked scientist is substantially superior to the 25th or 26th ranked people in this competition. Comparing interdisciplinary scientists must be a challenge of epic proportions, it would be a very difficult committee to chair. There are so many great young scientists in Canada, it’s an honour to be mentioned in this group, and this was a sort of silver lining to an otherwise depressing Friday. However, I do question why the restriction exists in the first place, and after doing a little digging, I think that the distribution of these awards is misaligned with the purpose of the award:

The Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships program provides funding to the very best postdoctoral applicants, both nationally and internationally, who will positively contribute to the country’s economic, social and research‑based growth.

In a nutshell, the Banting Fellowship exists to train the next generation of people who will become the next leaders in scientific fields in Canada. Nobody should undertake a postdoctoral fellowship unless they want advanced training in research – unlike the PhD which can have a broader outlook for jobs outside of research, postdoc work is purely research focused. Canada wants to fund good people to develop their skills and hopefully contribute to the country’s scientific expertise over the next couple decades. However, awarding only 25% of these to Canadians who pursue postdoctoral work in a foreign country is directly counter to the reality of who is hired in Canadian institutions for faculty positions, and this is where I have my beef, and where it may sound like I’m whining. I’m not.

A very wise friend advised me a few years ago it would be academic suicide for me to stay in Canada for a postdoc. As I demonstrated in my last blog post, she was right; exactly one Assistant Professor of geology in Canada did a PhD and Postdoc in Canada (and she’s a very special case, with a very special resource—Alberta’s dinosaur fossils—that are essential to her work). The pathway to an academic career in geology in Canada is either a) do your PhD in the US or Europe, OR, b) do your postdoc in the US or Europe, OR c) a & b. In Geology, 66% of new hires for tenure track positions did a PhD outside of Canada, and 73% did a postdoc outside of Canada. There’s a lot of merit to this – Canada is small, and we can’t possibly be on the cutting edge of every field in every sub-discipline. Hiring people who have been trained at top global institutions is great for students, cities, and yes, Canada as a whole. The breadth of thought these people bring to their institutions is incredibly valuable, and should be encouraged. It’s probably worth mentioning that Canada doesn’t have many top-ranked institutions, despite lots of chest thumping from smaller schools, who certainly have pockets of outstanding people, we have four “world class” institutions: U of T, McGill, U of A, and UBC. Counter this with the US that generally holds 18 out of the top 20 in most international rankings (with only Cambridge and Oxford in the UK holding top 5 positions). It’s entirely understandable that Canadian universities want to hire the best people, period. Andrew Leach made a very good point this morning that universities shouldn’t be exempt from Canadian hiring laws, but they do have more selective criteria for hiring than most regular jobs. This can be paraphrased as, “do you want universities to hire the best available person, the top 1% of the field, or do you want the best person above a minimum standard.” This has a certain Office Space “pieces of flair” ring to it that made me chuckle.

Anyway, back to the point of my post – if nearly everyone who ends up contributing long-term to Canadian research as faculty members of a university spends some time outside of the country, why not reallocate funding at more junior stages to reflect this? Perhaps more appropriately, 50% of the Banting awards could be allocated to Canadians with Canadian PhD’s to pursue scholarship abroad, and 50% of the awards to expat Canadians and foreigners with foreign PhD’s to “come home” and bring their expertise back to Canada. This would better reflect the reality of who is hired at our universities, and support those who will ultimately contribute to building a stronger Canadian scientific enterprise. An alternative might be to allocate the awards to the best candidates, period, regardless of location. Food for thought.

Ultimately, I’m insanely disappointed by the results of the competition, but science is all about striking out and getting back up to bat the next time and trying to get on base. I’ve had a couple weeks to digest this one, and I’m feeling better about it. After giving a talk at Princeton last week that received very positive feedback, I’m excited to get back in the lab and work on Earth history questions that will help answer where our planet is heading into a century of rapid climate change. Telling Earth’s history has never been as sexy to fund as “cure for cancer” research. However, if the geological past is our best predictor of our planet’s future course, studying Earth’s history has never been more relevant as it is today.

To be continued…


ps – If you happen to be one of the two other people who received the same letter from the Banting committee that I did, I’d love to hear from you, and get some sort of dialogue going on. Might be a shot in the dark, but the internet makes the world a little smaller these days…

pps – If anyone has better stats on Assistant professors in other disciplines, or better stats on those in Geology than I dug up, I’d love to see them. Having a reasonable idea of career path is important for new PhDs, who should be aware of the long uphill slog ahead of them if they want to continue on this career path.

*while I indeed was the primary author of the proposal, my adviser Dave Johnston provided outstanding comments and feedback, in addition to the rest of the J-lab who supported the development of these ideas. I can’t say enough how fortunate I feel to be a part of this research team. Thanks everyone for your support (and beer).