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The Black Hole

Tri-Councils should learn from EMBO fellowships


People often ask me what I would do if I were in charge of fellowships for Canadian trainees. In response, I will often slip into my usual refrain of making investment in people the basic tenet of any fellowship program. As it currently stands, the career track for academics artificially selects for those that can handle small amounts of stability and an incredible amount of career uncertainty. Many believe that a fellowship program that fights against this is dreaming a dream too big, but there is one organization working its tail off to combat the tide and Canadian funding agencies should be taking notes.

The European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) is at the forefront in fellowship program design. Its long-term fellowship program for postdoctoral fellows has the following components:

  • useful eligibility rules
  • child care allowance
  • dependent allowance
  • travel allowance
  • parental leave
  • part-time work policy (such that fellows can do 3 or 4 day weeks and remain funded)
  • private pension plan
  • Fellow’s Network

And EMBO is not a boutique funding organization (the 2013 Spring competition awarded 100 fellowships) so they’ve clearly figured out a way to invest in a broad set of useful programs for the diverse life situations that young scientists find themselves in. For this post, I want to highlight three of these components as things which every major trainee funding organization should consider implementing straight away:

Useful eligibility rules:

EMBO is realistic about who it wants to fund and makes no bones about telling those that do not fit the criteria that their application will be thrown into the bin straight away. Statements like: “Applicants must have at least one first author publication accepted in press or published in an international peer reviewed journal at the time of application” make it very obvious that if you don’t have a paper, you will not be getting a fellowship.  This cuts down on wasted application time and reduces peer review burden.

Private Pension Plan:

One of the most drilled home messages of financial advisers is to start pension savings early. This is not only advisable for the Canada Pension Plan (where each year helps you earn more later), but also private pension plans where compound interest relies on early starts.  Early career researchers, often located in foreign countries, will often not get enrolled into any sort of pension plan until their mid-late 30s due to the transience of academic training.  EMBO therefore created its own, internationally transferable, pension plan for its fellows – genius.

Fellow’s Network

One of the greatest travesties of the Canadian trainee funding system is the lack of connectivity that the funding organizations have with the recipients of their money. While former trainees will remain on mailing lists sometimes, that’s about as good as it gets.  After funding expires, fellows often drop off the face of the earth. EMBO, it seems, has figured this one out too – their FellowsNet is highly interactive and also appears to be for life (can someone confirm this?).  It is not simply about record keeping, but rather is about creating a community of like-minded individuals who build lifelong friendships and collaborations.

From my own experience, my hat needs to be tipped in the direction of CIHR for their progressive research allowance policy.  This funding allowed me to have decision making power over which conferences I attended and avoided many awkward discussions about where funding would come from.  I can see the movement in the right direction at CIHR, and thankfully there are groups like EMBO doing the trail-blazing – all we need to do is follow along.

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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