Speaking up for Young Scientists

Apr 19, 2017

Dean Trevor YoungDean Trevor Young “Everything is ultimately going to come down to knowledge and research in the decades ahead. Either we keep up or we lose ground.”

— Professor David Naylor, former U of T President, and Chair of the Advisory Panel on Federal Support for Fundamental Science


The Naylor report, made public last week, is essential reading for all in our community. It provides a bracing review of the state of Canadian research and where we stand relative to our counterparts: Canada’s global rank in total research output fell two spots to ninth in 2009 – 2014 from seventh in 2003 – 2008. When it comes to the growth rate for Canadian research citations, we’re now 15th in the world.

Among its recommendations, the report calls for greater investment in independent science and more coordination through a proposed new agency of oversight, the National Advisory Council on Research and Innovation. And it is particularly cogent on the need for action to address a critical issue for early career researchers.

Chronically low success rates for open competitions at CIHR are creating what the Naylor report calls a “valley of death” that is opening up between early career and established researchers: “The panel repeatedly heard about attrition caused by very low success rates in competitions and a sense of futility on the part of young scholars and researchers.”

Futility is no way to begin a career.

Productive research relies on the laddering of skills over time, where confidence and contribution emerges from experimental diligence, mentorship, peer review and, ultimately, finding and building success in highly competitive fields. When those who commit to a career in independent science — a long and rigorous path at the best of times — cannot get a toehold with sustainable grant funding, the long-term impact could cripple entire disciplines in Canadian science.

Many factors are at work here, not the least of which is a generation of Baby Boomers (okay, that includes me), aging well and working productively — often well beyond traditional retirement age. While the older cohort will reduce itself over the next 10 – 15 years, we must be working right now to ensure future bench strength in our labs. We need to find that balance between supporting the existing cadre of established scientists while ensuring new talent is on the rise. CIHR has recently sent a very encouraging message on this front.

On April 13, Rod McInnes, newly appointed Acting President of CIHR, announced important and immediate changes to the grant review process. Among them, for the current project grants in review (fall 2016 applications):

“The success rate for Early Career Investigators (ECIs) will be equalized. Last summer, there was unanimous support from the Peer Review Working Group for equalizing success rates for ECIs in the Project Grant program. Equalizing success rates means ensuring that the proportion of ECIs funded equals the proportion of ECI applicants to the competition. We can now confirm that this will be done for the fall 2016 competition.”

This is a much-needed step forward for young investigators. CIHR is making other important changes for upcoming submissions; I encourage you to read Dr. McInnes’s full message.

The choir of voices supporting research renewal will also grow louder in just a few days during the March for Science. More than 400 marches and rallies are planned around the world, including one here in Toronto. Among the voices will be that of Jim Woodgett, professor of medical biophysics and director of research at Sinai Health System’s Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, who is among the organizers of the local event, championing evidence-based policy making, scientific research free from politically motivated vetting, and a better and more inclusive STEM education.

In Toronto, we’re fortunate to be part of one of the world’s most productive biomedical research networks. The tenacity and resourcefulness of our young researchers is at the heart of what helps us be as productive as we are and we can’t allow that to diminish. The Naylor report and the signs of change at CIHR are strong signals for renewal ahead.

Trevor Young
Dean, Faculty of Medicine
Vice-Provost, Relations with Health Care Institutions


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