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.
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How one Canadian scientist is tapping into the knowledge of Indigenous communities
Jean Polfus, a postdoctoral fellow at Trent University in Peterborough, Canada, studies the distribution and spatial organization of caribou (or reindeer; Rangifer tarandus) populations in the Sahtú region of the Northwest Territories. She explains how she collaborates with members of the Dene Indigenous community, and how their insights benefit her research. Why was it important to you to work with Indigenous communities? In 2012, the local community-run institutions responsible for resources such as fish, wildlife and forests got together and drafted a resolution asking that Dene traditional knowledge, laws, traditions and language be respected and represented in any caribou research going forward. I adapted my work in response to this community initiative and developed memoranda of understanding with the communities to dictate how that should be done — the research questions to pursue and the methods that local people considered appropriate to carry out research. I developed a way to do caribou research that respected local people and included them in all phases of the research process. Recommended articles Working Scientist podcast: Science and government, Canadian style > Why are Canada’s scientists getting political? > How did you incorporate traditional knowledge into your scientific work? My colleagues and I asked people to help us collect caribou scat, and we gave Can$25 (US$19) fuel cards for every sample they brought in. Once we had some of the genetic results from the scat, we analysed those results in collaboration with Dene people to see how traditional knowledge and language about what type of caribou lived where matched up with what the genetic data were telling us. The results from the genetic analysis and accompanying discussions showed that we could distinguish different types of caribou genetically, and that those genetic groupings matched with how Dene people use language to describe the types of caribou. This understanding can help both the community and scientists develop better conservation plans for caribou in the region. What did you learn from the Indigenous communities? Dene people have such nuanced language to describe caribou. They have words for types of caribou that we don’t identify in conventional classification and taxonomies. For example, there’s the Tęnatł'ǝa which is a type of mountain caribou with unique markings and behaviour. This word wouldn’t exist in their language if it wasn’t essential to understanding the caribou and how to hunt them effectively. Tęnatł'ǝawarrant further study because they might harbour unique genetic diversity and could play an important part in caribou population dynamics. All of that is tied to the detailed and place-based knowledge that we often disregard in Western science because we’re trying to find standardized approaches. And when we try to standardize biodiversity, we lose some of the nuance and some of the beauty. If you have a career story that you'd like to share, then please complete this form, or send your outline by email.
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