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The Black Hole

Promising development at CIHR: an early career researcher on the governing council

For the first time, a postdoctoral fellow has been appointed to serve as a member of the governing council of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.


Last week, Ginette Petitpas Taylor, Canada’s minister of health, announced that a postdoctoral fellow has been appointed to serve as a member of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) governing council. Brianne Kent’s appointment to the governing council was made by the federal cabinet, which also has the mandate to manage the roughly $1 billion in public funds that Canada invests annually in health research and to ensure that the expectations outlined in the CIHR Act are met. This is the first time an early career research (ECR) has been appointed to the CIHR governing council. Although Dr. Kent (no relation to the author) will be serving in a personal capacity – i.e., not as a formal representative of a group of early career researchers – she will bring a much-needed voice to help shape future CIHR policies.

One of CIHR’s mandates is to create a research environment that recruits, attracts and retains top talent in Canada. Both Jonathan and I have written in the past about this being a particularly weak area of Tri-Council policies, and this appointment could be a sign of new policies to address some of these gaps. As Dr. Kent states, “This is one more clear demonstration that our federal government is prioritizing diverse representation at all levels of governance. Over the past few years, CIHR has been criticized for its perceived neglect of scientists in the early stages of their career, and recently CIHR has changed leadership and taken steps to correct some of these gaps with increased funding in training awards and equalizing the success rate of ECRs in the project grant program.”

In response to the appointment, Mark Patterson, executive director of the life sciences academic journal eLife, commented on Twitter: “Funders and Institutions – more of the same please. ECRs in positions of real influence.” Finally it appears that representation of early career researchers is being valued and recognized, with eLife being a leader in this space by establishing an early career advisory group and inviting an early career researcher to their board of governors.

In addition to providing an ECR voice, Dr. Kent’s tireless efforts to encourage open science will hopefully lead to the incorporation of some open science values under CIHR’s definition of scientific excellence. The process of evaluating and communicating scientific research is evolving and research funders hold incredible power to drive reform in academic research culture. As a first step, CIHR can modernize its 2013 open access policy to promote best practices by following the lead of the EU, U.K., and U.S., all of which require research funded by federal grants to be made publicly available immediately.

I have a lot of hope for this appointment, having known and interacted with Dr. Kent for the past eight years. When I first met Brianne, she was a PhD student at the University of Cambridge and was busy organizing panel discussions and events to encourage critical debate around research communication and dissemination. Since then, it has been a joy to witness the expansion of her advocacy efforts to change the way we undertake and communicate science globally. Since 2014, she has been an invited member of the early career advisory group at eLife, which is working to catalyze broad reform in the evaluation and communication of science. Dr. Kent was also a lead organizer for Future of Research Vancouver, which published a report outlining policy recommendations needed in Canada to better support and attract early career scientists.

When I asked her where her enthusiasm for these initiatives comes from, she explained that, “Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum. What we can accomplish in the lab depends entirely on continuing to have a career in science, which intimately depends on funding and publications. Therefore, what we value as a community and how we evaluate the impact of scientific contribution determines what we can accomplish as scientists.” She is optimistic about the progress being made to support early career researchers and to change the value system in science toward more open, reproducible and rigorous science. Dr. Kent adds, “It is exciting that the chief science advisor, Dr. Mona Nemer, has stated that promoting scientific integrity, defined as ‘the application of concepts of transparency, openness, high quality work, avoidance of conflict of interest and ensuring high standards of impartiality and research ethic’ is at the core of her mandate.”

Appointing an ECR, especially this particular one, to the CIHR governing council is a good reason to be optimistic that changes to promote a fairer, more sustainable, scientific ecosystem in Canada are a real priority. Fingers crossed that other organizations follow this lead and we see more appointments of younger scientists on boards across the world.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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