Canada’s “Natural Science and Engineering Research Council” has grown uncomfortable with the rapidly dwindling success rate in its postdoctoral fellowship programme, the latest having clocked in at 7.8%. So, it has decided to artificially inflate these rates by limiting the number of times young Canadian scholars can apply for such awards to … once. Never mind that the pathetic $40,000 salary (see comments below for corrections) for a highly trained Canadian post-doc hasn’t changed in more than 25 years, young Canadian scientists will now be fighting tooth and nail for the privilege of living on the fringe of the poverty line while trying to jumpstart their research careers. Welcome to Canada’s new lottery system for deciding the future of the nation’s capacity for advanced study and research.
I guess something needed to be done to cover up the fact that NSERC is now awarding 66% fewer fellowships than it did 5 years ago. Last year, we wondered whether the following numbers reflected a policy shift at NSERC or just collateral damage.
- (2008) 250 awards/ 1169 applicants
- (2009) 254 awards/ 1220 applicants
- (2010) 286 awards/ 1341 applicants
- (2011) 133 awards/ 1431 applicants
- (2012) 98 awards/ 1254 applicants
These 98 fellowships are to be shared by 20 scientific disciplines and to be split among the 59 PhD-granting Canadian universities. And here is how NSERC responded then.
Many colleagues have already done a good job reporting on this shameful milestone for Canada’s research and post-secondary education. Jim Colliander wonders what would happen if “Canada restricts athlete participation to one Olympic games per lifetime.” A rightfully exasperated David Kent exclaims from his academic exile, “Come on NSERC, really – you’ve completely missed the point…,” which has obviously inspired my title above.
Let me therefore focus on another aspect of the story. Since it is now clear that the dismantlement of academic postdoctoral opportunities is a major policy shift and not just a simple budgetary hick-up nor another moratorium, I think it is high time to ask: who is responsible for this policy shift, and who should be held accountable for its long term impact on the country’s future? Is anyone ready and willing to own this –oh-so-eloquent– piece of decision-making? Is this major policy shift the brainchild of NSERC’s bureaucrats or is it another manifestation of the Harper doctrine?
My guess is that, unless and until the government does something about Recommendation 6 in the Jenkins report, Canada is destined to remain without “a clear federal voice on research and innovation”, and Canadians will continue to be in the dark on fundamental issues of governance and accountability within the granting councils.
But where do the universities stand vis-a-vis this –not very subtle– push by certain federal outlets to do away with the bulk of academic postdoctoral opportunities in the sciences?
Will the AUCC president issue an errata to his latest press release praising the government for “investments (that) will preserve current levels of basic research and scholarships funding?”
Will university presidents speak up and say that “Government did not get it right,” this time around? Will they write MP James Rajotte again and ask him to relate to the House of Commons their concerns about “the Government of Canada’s commitment to post-secondary education and research?”
Will anyone of this country’s 40+ university vice-presidents for research raise his/her voice in protest, and make the case for Canada’s future research capacity? Or will they keep trying to legitimize –via bizarre supporting testimonials— questionable NSERC policies regardless how incompatible they are with the wishes and aspirations of the very researchers they are supposed to represent, support and serve.
Will the professional and learned societies finally realize that their mandate goes beyond collecting dues and organizing banquets that young scholars cannot afford anyway?
Will the Royal Society of Canada (Ah! that useless one) commission a report stating loudly and clearly what is so obvious to all of its –distinguished yet so powerless– Fellows?
And will Mr. Goodyear carry David Naylor’s message to Government, that the measure that matters most is “the generation of a succession of home-grown winners of pinnacle research prizes”, starting with our own graduates and not “the new boutique programs or politicized one-offs so beloved by governments” such as the CERC’s ?
And can anyone in Ottawa answer my daughter for me when she asks again, “how can I (and why should I) pursue an academic career in science and engineering when my own government is so determined on dissuading me from doing so?
It surely looks like NSERC has saved its most vicious blow for those who are already down among us. It is imperative that we don’t let it happen.