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The Black Hole

Quarterly Summary: Guest bloggers and the road to solutions


Over the first six months of this site’s existence, a lot of virtual ink has been dedicated to highlighting the major concerns about the way we train scientists and how scientific information is communicated to the public and government. The next six months will continue to present this type of information, but will also focus on how to move forward while embracing the current trends within the system.

Importantly, we’ve now started our guest blogger section with two excellent entries from Carl Wonders and Marianne Stanford. We are certainly keen to expand this section as we go forward, using it to represent the diverse views in an attempt to build consensus and devise solutions moving forward – if you are interested email us here.

These two entries commented on the Canada Revenue Agency’s response to the CAPS letter of January 2009 and engage the major issue of Post Docs: Trainees or Employees? – this is a critical issue moving forward and the work of CAPS is beginning to gain clarity of how the post doctoral fellow is (and should be) classified. If Canada wishes to recruit and retain this class of researchers, major changes have to take place as the international reputation of Canada as a place to do a post doc is faltering and this uncertain status is a major contributor to such feelings. A personal take on it – Nobody in my current Institute complains about salary or vacation days… this might be because they are employees with standard incremental pay raises based on experience, have access to staff pension plans, and have 31 days of vacation.
While we’ve been very lucky to have such stellar guest bloggers, Beth and I have also continued writing on a multitude of issues:
Beth started the quarter with an entry on communicating science to non-scientists alerting readers to the metric of the “fog index” which approximates how difficult your writing is to understand. Many scientists would be shocked to know how difficult their writing is to interpret and should take note when trying to write for, or communicate to, a non-academic audience.

She also pulled on the heart strings of many PhDs and post doc prospective and current parents with her musings on having a family while undertaking academic science careers. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation showed that childcare at UBC would cost 38% of a post doc’s salary if they were being paid $35,000 (which is the situation of nearly 20% of post docs in Canada according to the November 2009 CAPS survey). The comment box was very active – Post Docs are often not paying into EI (and can’t get parental leave), contract working post docs often have to take a break in their contract and/or risk not getting it renewed, and my personal favourite:

My university’s policy on the matter is: “We don’t have a policy, talk to your supervisor.” What is this, the 1950s?

Most recently, Beth has taken a Q/A type approach, posing very open ended questions that have attracted a good deal of attention from our readers:
• Why does anyone think science is a good job?
• Why Do Scientists Blog?
• What Does A Graduate Degree Mean?

I started to spill over into the stuff that Beth normally writes about, starting off this quarter wondering: “If 80% of PhD holders do not become tenure track academics, what do they become and are universities helping them get there?” Looking at the Canadian numbers, we graduated nearly 5000 doctoral students in 2007 and 4000 of them will not become tenure track professors. Assuming we continue this trend (in fact it’s likely to increase as it has been doing), this equates to 40,000 workers over a ten year period who will have PhDs but will not be tenure track professors. The entry basically asked what resources were available to this large sector of workers to find this job while they were being trained and the answer was highly variable depending on the university you attended? Some great resources do exist though and I tried to highlight them in that entry.

Next, I touched on one of the things that I find most challenging about new groups with great ideas and mission statements. The Council of Canadian Academies has much to uplift one’s spirits in this way, but I am really concerned that this effort will not retain the support of the Government when its 10 year funding expires and has yet to convince me that they can sustain themselves on a cost recovery basis, so the hunt for new funds must begin. Why is it that such necessary programs (like an arms length scientific advisory panel) find it so difficult to cultivate support in Canada?

Finally, I wrote three entries that underscore some major themes of this site and the issues that are most pressing for science trainees in Canada:

1. Facilitating career mobility for senior lab based scientists – to become advisers, politicians, entrepreneurs, etc without being severely detrimental to the trainees?
2. Addressing the gap between policy makers and scientists
3. Focusing the training of PhDs on thinking and innovating rather than generating requisite amounts of information or data.

That’s it for this summary, stay tuned for a summer filled with ramblings from Beth and I as we try to bring new and exciting developments to the front page of the Black Hole site. Thanks, as always, for reading and spreading the word.

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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  1. Jarvis Krings / February 16, 2013 at 01:10

    Im getting a tiny issue. I cant get my reader to pick-up your feed, Im using bing reader by the way.