The sorry state of Canada’s researchers has strong parallels with the plight of Canadian workers in general. Young workers have difficulty finding proper jobs, experienced workers lose their jobs, and once unemployed, workers have great difficulty finding subsequent employment.
Similarly, new researchers have increasing trouble finding post-docs and proper jobs, and getting grant money to support their research. Experienced researchers are increasingly at risk of losing their grants and once lost, the odds of subsequent funding are depressingly low. I document each of these with recent Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council statistics on Discovery Grants and related facts.
Early career researchers
The availability of postdoctoral fellowships is being curtailed. The NSERC success rate in 2012 was less than 10 per cent, versus 35 per cent in 2002, due to a dramatic increase in applicants and a decrease in the number of fellowships. Not to worry though, apparently NSERC plans to improve that statistic by limiting the number of times researchers can apply for a fellowship.
Research-intensive academic jobs are increasingly rare. As government funding fails to keep pace with rising costs and non-academic demands on the limited funds grow, full-time positions are left vacant and more and more teaching is carried out by temporary workers who lack opportunities for research.
With respect to jobs in industry, Canada has a very poor record of research by private companies, limiting opportunities there, and what activity is carried out employs few PhD-trained researchers (something like 7 per cent to 8 per cent of the private R&D workforce). And in a bizarre turn, the government offers up the National Research Council to carry out business-oriented research, rather than providing incentives for the private sector to employ more qualified researchers and expand Canada’s research capacity.
It is worth noting that the problem is not too many PhDs. Indeed, Canada lags far behind many developed countries in the education and employment of PhDs.
Even those early career researchers who get academic jobs are hard-pressed to get funding to develop a program of scientific research. The success rate of early career researchers for NSERC Discovery Grants was 60 per cent in 2013 versus 77 per cent in 2002. And this, despite a marked decline in applicants from a high of 768 in 2007 to just 471 in 2013 (presumably a reflection of the academic job market). A mere 281 awards were granted to early career researchers in 2013.
Renewing a grant
Happily some researchers do get funded, but that happiness is short lived for many. The likelihood of a successful renewal of an NSERC Discovery Grant has decreased markedly. Only 76 per cent were renewed in 2013 versus 95 per cent in 2002.
A total of 450 researchers lost their funding in 2013 and slightly less in 2012. And this, despite an actual decline in the number of applicants from a high in 2007. But the number of awards declined even more.
The picture would be even bleaker if we could capture statistically the voluntary terminations, that is, the many researchers who did not apply because they saw no decent chance of success in the present climate. Increasingly NSERC is becoming a transient source of funding for Canada’s researchers.
Not holding a grant
And once off the granting train, it is increasingly difficult to get back on. The funding rate for established researchers not holding a grant was 30 per cent in 2013 versus almost 60 per cent in 2002.
Not surprisingly, given the loss of funding described previously, the number in this category increased markedly from about 700 in 2004 to about 1,100 in 2013. And how many more gave up any hope of a renewal?
Detailed analysis reveals that these statistics vary across geographic regions, evaluation committees and institutions, meaning the situation is more dire for researchers restricted by their circumstances.
The current emphasis on production of highly qualified personnel, especially PhDs, is deeply misguided, given government and funding policies make it impossible for most of those individuals to subsequently take advantage of their training. They are unlikely to get post-docs or research jobs in either the public or private sector, and even if they do get jobs, the odds are slim that they will apply for, receive and retain research grants, especially if they are employed at smaller universities or in disadvantaged provinces.
Canada is sorely curtailing its support of researchers at a time when most developed countries are increasing support because they recognize the importance of investing in knowledge generation and the provision of an environment where highly qualified people can take advantage of their skills. Neither is true of the current research climate in Canada, except perhaps in glossy documents and press releases that contain empty phrases of support for science by the very people undermining science in Canada.
As it currently stands, Canada is on the precipice of losing at least one generation of scientists, who have had the door of opportunity closed in their faces, and perhaps there are more failed generations to come. Certainly, it is hard to believe that young, aspiring scientists can be optimistic about science as a career path given the current antipathy towards the present generation of young scientists. And bright people always have other, more rewarding career paths that they could choose.
Canada’s failure to support its scientists is undermining our future, and the situation will only get worse unless universities large and small can encourage the granting councils and the government to abandon policies that leave so many current and future researchers unfunded and that cast a dark shadow over science as a career for bright young Canadians.
Jim Clark is a professor and chair of the psychology department at the University of Winnipeg. This article was previously printed in CAUT’s Bulletin.