Canadian science wins billions in new budget
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration released its 2018 budget on 27 February and scientists couldn’t be happier. It includes almost Can$4 billion (US$3.1 billion) in new funding for science over the next five years, a significant portion of which will go to the country’s three granting councils. This is in contrast to the Can$1 billion in new science funding contained in last year's budget — almost none of which went to basic research.
The latest budget is “the single largest investment in investigator-led fundamental research in Canadian history,” said finance minister Bill Morneau in remarks to legislators on 27 February.
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research will each receive Can$354.7 million, while the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council will get Can$215.5 million. All three councils will share another Can$275 million to support research that is “international, interdisciplinary, fast-breaking and higher-risk”. Much of this money will be reserved for early and mid-career researchers. The councils didn't receive any new funding in 2017, and have only gotten tens of millions of new money in past years.
Scientists had been lobbying Trudeau’s middle-left Liberal government hard for an unrestricted boost to granting-council budgets, as opposed to funding earmarked for specific research projects, which has been a hallmark of previous years.
The move follows recommendations from last year’s Fundamental Science Review, a report by an expert panel led by former University of Toronto president David Naylor. He was “relieved and pleased” with this “historic recalibration” in science funding. “They seem to have read the report more carefully than most governments,” he says.
On the right track
The budget doesn’t provide the huge boost of more than Can$1 billion a year for the granting councils that Naylor’s report recommended. But it sets the right trajectory and shows that the government listened to scientists and took Naylor’s review seriously, says Jim Woodgett, director of research at the University of Toronto’s Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute. “It falls short but it doesn’t preclude adding to it going forward,” he says. “Scientists should be sleeping well tonight in Canada.”
Others were equally pleased with the result. “The government went further towards meeting the recommendations of the Naylor report than anyone expected,” says Alan Bernstein, chief executive of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto.
The budget includes Can$763 million for the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), which funds research infrastructure. The government has also pledged to make this funding permanent — in line with the Fundamental Science Review — with an annual budget of Can$462 million by 2023. Until now, the CFI was funded only in ad hoc chunks every few years.
Early-career researchers got a boost, in the form of an extra Can$210 million over five years for the Canada Research Chairs programme. The programme supports scientists at universities across the country, and the money is reserved for young researchers.
In fact, the "running theme" of the 2018 budget seemed to be focused on early career researchers, says Tina Gruosso, vice president of communications for Science & Policy Exchange, a Montreal-based campaign group run by graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. "We were really happy to see significant steps in the right direction."
The budget still includes funding for some independent research organisations: the Institute of Quantum Computing, for example, will receive Can$15 million over three years. But it also states that the government will consider a peer-review approach to determining how to allocate such funding in the future — another recommendation from Naylor’s report. “It’s wonky, but really important,” says Katie Gibbs, executive director of the science campaign group Evidence for Democracy in Ottawa. “It will change how funds are dished out in the future.”
Listening to the community
But scientists didn't get everything they wanted. There was no mention of renewed funding for the Climate Change and Atmospheric Research programme, which is set to end this year. Without an influx of cash, several of the programme’s research stations in the high Arctic will have to shut down. Only one station, the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), received money to keep going until 2019 when the government provided Can$1.6 million last November.
Matt Jeneroux, the shadow science minister from the opposition Conservative party, says that the budget leaves many questions unanswered. They include the future of specific projects — including PEARL — and long-term support, beyond the next five years, for the granting councils. “There’s lots of colourful language, but I’m not sure what it means when the rubber hits the road,” he says.
Despite that, Gibbs says this budget is a testament to the campaign waged by Canadian researchers over the past year to ensure that the government took the recommendations in the Fundamental Science Review seriously. “It really shows the government spent the last year listening to the community,” she says.
Nature 555, 153 (2018)
Sponsored: Shining a light for emerging global talent
A conversation with Alexander Kwarteng, a CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar and lecturer at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology CIFAR brings together nearly 400 researchers from all over the world who drive scientific innovations and make important contributions to society. The CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars programme benefits early-career investigators by providing mentorship, funding, career development training, and access to a global network of scientists. Alexander Kwarteng uses an interdisciplinary approach to address the challenges associated with neglected tropical diseases. Kwarteng describes how the Global Scholars programme has advanced his career and transformed his perspective. What inspired you to work in Ghana? I have always been fascinated by learning, research, and discovering the full potential of science in developing countries. I am from Ghana, and after I finished my PhD in Germany, I decided to spend some time in remote Ghanaian villages working in public health. It was there that I found my inspiration to work on neglected tropical diseases. While visiting one community, I came across a man whose limbs were swollen and eyes cast to the ground in shame. He suffered from lymphatic filariasis, and as a result, experienced stigma and was banned from village life. At that moment, I decided to devote my life to finding a cure for lymphatic filariasis so I could help people like him and contribute to my country. What is the focus of your research? I have a lab in Ghana with a small team of researchers. We are trying to understand the pathogenesis of lymphatic filariasis in the context of the microbiome’s role. Specifically, we investigate whether microbes complicate the disease, or lead to resistance in certain people. We go to communities, recruit patients, and document disease prevalence. We also carry out laboratory analyses to look at which microbes are present and how they might contribute to pathogenesis. How do you incorporate a social perspective into your work? One thing that pushed me into this field of research was my interactions with people in remote communities. While science can contribute to our understanding of disease, we also need to address the stigma, inequality, and injustice that people with disease experience. Combining social aspects with a scientific approach will bring us closer to addressing the challenges associated with lymphatic filariasis. What is unique about the CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars programme? CIFAR stands out in all respects. CIFAR is comprised of renowned, experienced scientists from diverse backgrounds. As a young researcher, being among these individuals is fantastic because you get feedback on experimental design, grant writing, career development, and mentorship. These resources are always available for Global Scholars. We also engage in workshops, attend conferences, and travel to many parts of the world. It’s all part of the programme’s commitment to our career development. They make sure that we are transformed as Global Scholars and represent CIFAR to the fullest wherever we go. How has it enhanced your career? One of the great benefits of the programme for me, and many other scholars, is the opportunity for collaboration. I have been introduced to the world’s most outstanding researchers. That opportunity is invaluable. Funding is also important because without it I wouldn’t have been able to do some of the research I am undertaking in rural communities in Ghana. Mentorship and career development are key as well. They have a brilliant mentoring and advising team, which is very important for me, particularly coming from a developing country. The programme offers us opportunities to develop leadership skills so that we can mentor others. This support has enabled me to recruit young scientists and become a better mentor for my lab. CIFAR has not only had a direct impact on my life, but on their lives as well. What impact has this programme had on you? I feel so proud to be a Global Scholar. It strengthens my passion for science and drive to make new discoveries. It affects the way I do research and puts me on a platform to be more competitive for grants, fellowships, and other opportunities. I truly believe that this programme can change a person. It changed my perspective on life and on science, right in my home in Ghana. Any advice for other early-career scientists? No matter where you come from or what your background is, CIFAR will have something for you, particularly when you have the potential to impact life and society. CIFAR is taking the lead by bringing global talent together and highlighting people who have the opportunity and ability to shine in their communities. For more information please visit www.cifar.ca/global-scholars-2019
Finding Job Satisfaction in Technology Transfer
As a business development officer at STEMCELL Technologies in Vancouver, Canada, Ben Thiede evaluates new technologies and negotiates deals that bring scientific advances to market. He describes his move from graduate studies toward law and into his current position. What do you do? It’s a very diverse role; I’m writing and drafting a lot of agreements – like license agreements and supply agreements. I’m helping the company evaluate the patents we have; I’m evaluating technologies that other companies are bringing to us. I’m always scouring publications; I have Google Alerts set for certain types of technologies. I feel that I am reading more scientific journals than when I was in grad school. What appealed to you about careers that did not involve lab work? I wanted a career where you could get paid for your efforts. I was disheartened with science. I was in a position where you could be chasing so many hypotheses, and you could lose a whole lot of work if they didn’t pan out. Why did you go to graduate school? I’m the first scientist in my family. I got interested in stem cells because I was living in Wisconsin, where Jamie Thomson was becoming very well known for being the first to isolate human embryonic stem (hES) cells. I worked in his lab as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; then I worked as a research assistant differentiating hES cells into neurons. I decided to go to graduate school in neuroscience. I went to visit the University of Virginia after Madison had had the biggest snowfall in history; it was 75 degrees and sunny, and it had a good neuroscience program. I wanted to stay with differentiating stem cells and studied a sensory cell in the inner ear. And you also worked as an intern at the University of Virginia Patent Foundation. I did it during the day, about 10 to 15 hours on average per week. At night I studied for the patent bar to be a patent agent, which means you can write patents and prosecute them. It’s very helpful knowledge for tech transfer. My PhD advisor was fine with it, as long as I got my research done. What did you do next? When I was in tech transfer, my goal was to go to law school; I applied to several law schools and got accepted, even a full ride to one school. But I wasn’t quite certain that I wanted to do law school, and I’d heard that law school was something you needed to be 100% certain about. Then I got a job offer from Texas A&M University. The law school let me defer for a year, and so I went to Texas to be a tech transfer agent. I came to the realization that the marriage of business, science and law within tech transfer was perfect for me, and I didn’t think that a law degree would add anything to what I wanted to do. How did you find your current job? When I was at Texas A&M, my wife and I had thrown around the idea, ‘let’s live internationally.’ Then I came across an opportunity at a company in Canada called STEMCELL Technologies. The job description said how beautiful Vancouver is, how close to the beach and the mountains. I thought ‘this opportunity is kind of like tech transfer, but it’s from the other end.’ And it was in stem cells. I called my wife and said ‘I know you want to live internationally, does Canada count?’ What are your days like? When I go into work, I have a list of ten things I want to get done and 30 things come up that I wasn’t expecting. I never know who I’m going to interact with. In science I was very independent and relying on my own creativity a lot, and now I feel a greater sense of the whole; I’m part of an organization now. Any final thoughts? It would have been hard to break into the field without any experience. I don’t know if I would be here if I hadn’t done my internship, and I got my internship by talking to the person who was fitting my suit [and whose son-in-law worked in a patent office]. Sometimes people who do science have a hard time with small talk and learning to communicate their interests, but that’s one of the skills people need to learn. I’ve had these opportunities because I’ve worked hard to show that I’m worth taking a risk on. To see more of this interview, click here.
A tax-law change has dealt a heavy blow to Canadian postdocs, argues Lucie Low As a newly appointed postdoc, I was excited, nervous and enthusiastic about moving to Canada last July. I had just completed a PhD, which is no small task in itself. I had applied for, and been awarded, an international scholarship to move from Britain to Canada and work in a world-renowned brain-imaging laboratory. The salary would apparently be tax-free. “Wow,” I breathed to myself, “this is actually happening, this really is my dream come true!” Fast-forward 11 months, and how things have changed. Postdoc salaries are no longer tax-free and I have learnt that the status of postdocs in Canada is generally 'undefined' (see Nature doi:10.1038/news.2010.429; 2010). All because last year's budget clarified the rules for tax credits, removing the 'student' loophole that gave some postdocs tax-free salaries. Cue a hefty pay cut (I suppose I'll pay back my student loan when I win the lottery), mounting frustration over the paucity of resources and respect given to postdocs and a growing disillusionment with the whole situation. Oh, Canada! Country of maple syrup, lumberjacks and mounties! You could have got it so right. But you didn't. Taxes are fine if they mean you get certain benefits — annual leave, for example. Then there's access to a pension scheme and maternity pay. Unfortunately, Canadian postdocs now find themselves paying full staff taxes, but still ineligible for these benefits. In many Canadian institutions, postdocs are classed as 'trainees', which seems to be a catch-all to describe being neither a student nor a staff member. This means that we are easily ignorable, often dealt with by departments more tailored to graduate-student issues — departments without the time, energy or resources to work out the complexities of postdoctoral status (be it 'student', 'trainee' or 'staff'). In an April 2010 letter to the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS), the Canada Revenue Agency justified the use of 'trainee' as a term by arguing that postdocs are similar to “apprentices, articling students, and medical residents”. (CAPS had requested clarification on the tax laws.) This would be fine if postdocs were getting the same salaries as, say, articling students (as newly qualified lawyers are called in Canada). But we're not. And, with the recently added tax burden, some postdocs are finding themselves in the bizarre situation of earning less than the graduate students in their labs. Taking into account that the average age of a postdoc in Canada is 33 (according to a CAPS poll) and that 48% of postdocs have dependents, this pay cut places a heavy burden on those with mortgages, children and other responsibilities. Now there's an incentive to complete your thesis. I realize that few people become scientists for the money. Those keen on big salaries usually seek to become lawyers or surgeons. I'm also aware that postdocs aren't all equitable elsewhere. But if this inequitable treatment of Canadian postdocs continues, Canada will lose some of its brightest minds. My advice for now? Weigh up the pitfalls and limitations of your situation before considering a Canadian postdoc. Still, all is not doom and gloom. There are countless opportunities to help improve the situation — by setting up institutional postdoc associations, working with CAPS or liaising with your institution to make it aware of the problems — which is exactly what I'm doing. Vive la révolution! So I do see the benefits of my move, and of living and working in Canada. And for now, I am learning to ice skate and enjoying Canada's maple syrup. I'm also, I'm afraid, educating myself about the nuances of Canadian tax laws. Lucie Low Nature 474, 533 (2011) doi:10.1038/nj7352-533a Published online: 22 June 2011 This article was originally published in the journal Nature