Is there hope for young scientists in Canada?

It’s been a long time since I updated this blog that I once truly cherished. I intend to get back to sharing my thoughts on the latest and greatest in science, but the last year I have found myself pulled in many other directions.

One of these directions is toward science advocacy, and science policy. I was given the opportunity last year to be a founding member of the Vancouver branch of Future of Research. Future of Research were founded in 2014 by a group of young scientists in Boston (USA), who were alarmed by what they saw as a critically unsustainable research environment. Funding system only reward already successful researchers; there is a complete lack of launching grants to help new professors reach this position; and once young scientists fail to secure grants and are pushed out of universities, no organised career training to help them find alternative career paths where they can put their signifiant (taxpayer subsidised) educations to good use.

We risk losing a generation of our best and brightest, and our best hopes of tackling the 21st century’s significant problems along with it.

The following is an excerpt from an upcoming research paper which we at Future of Research Vancouver have submitted for publication in the journal  F1000research. Once published, we hope to launch an advocacy campaign to help show university and government bodies that what we are proposing is not only essential for the future of Canada’s research environment, but could usher in a new age of innovation.

Canada stand ready to be leaders in 21st century science, if only we have the determination to say so.

 


 

Shaping the Future of Research: a perspective from Early Career Researchers in Vancouver, Canada

The Future of Research Vancouver Symposium (FoRV2017) was held on February 20th, 2017, following increasing concern by members of the local academic community that the voices of junior researchers were not being considered in discussions around the future of funding and training structures in Canadian research.

In laboratories and offices across Canada today, the majority of research is undertaken by early career researchers (ECRs), namely graduate students and postdoctoral fellows (PDFs). ECRs design and execute experiments, collect data, write papers, and are often solely responsible for supervising more junior team members. As such, ECRs play a core role in Canada’s science, technology and health sectors.

 

However, the Canadian research landscape now presents significant challenges to ECRS:

  • Numbers of PhDs awarded annually by Canadian universities are growing, and the increasing length of PDFs’ tenures. However, the number of junior faculty positions available at Canadian universities has shrunk.
  • Canadian ECRs are told to seek alternative career paths, but report high levels of dissatisfaction with the career development and professional training available to them.
  • A lack of “staff scientist” or stable mid-career options make academic employment undesirable, and result in lab management problems including institutional knowledge loss, and a dearth of supervision and support.
  • Wages for Canadian ECRs are not internationally competitive, which is exacerbated in BC by Vancouver’s high cost of living, and many ECRs do not receive basic employment benefits available to other working residents.
  • ECRs report high levels of symptoms of mental illness.

 

Recent announcements regarding increases to the Canadian research councils’ budgets offer promises that “rising tides will raise all ships”, but few details have been offered on actual plans to improve opportunities for ECRs.

In order to effect change, junior researchers must identify the multifaceted challenges they face, and confront the role that academia, government, and industry play in them.  As such, the opening session of FoRV2017 consisted of talks and panel discussions from local members of the scientific community, including industry and academic leaders, who have been vocal regarding ECR issues and the sustainability of Canadian science. This was followed by workshops aimed at discussing the issues that had been raised, and prompt potential solutions from attendees. Workshops focussed on 4 core topics: how trainees could be better prepared for careers in science; how sustainable, secure career pathways could be created for ECRs; how funding of research in Canada could be structured to balance basic research, knowledge translation, and training of ECRs; and how scientists and institutions could be better incentivised for behaviours that support the future of Canadian science.

 

Based on the responses from attendees, and further literature review and discussion among organisers, we endorse the following recommendations:

  1. Improve ECR-targeted funding, including grants which provide operating costs for ECRs transitioning from a PDF to junior faculty position, and recognising ECRs contributions to grants awarded to their supervising professors.
  2. Develop guidelines for mentorship and training, such as professional development programs, and tools to help supervising professors provide high-quality mentorship, including incentivising them to allow ECRs to seek training outside the professor-ECR relationship.
  3. Bridge gaps between academia and alternative career paths, such as through partnered research with private industry, and internships with non-academic groups.

 

If the future of Canadian research lies in its junior researchers, then strategies must be laid out for how universities, government, and the knowledge-intensive industries can better nurture our ECRs. Recent grassroots campaigns, such as #SupportTheReport to encourage the Canadian government to take up the recommendations of the Fundamental Science Review, have shown that effective change is possible. Canadian ECRs must be ready to stake their claims in their future, and we hope that meetings such as FoRV2017 are only the beginning.

 


 

Until next time

 

– J

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The long haul

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I think one of the hardest things about working in science is that it is supposed to be all-encompassing. I’ve written about this briefly before, but when you’re a scientist, you are a scientist.

I’ve been working full-time as a postdoc at the University of British Columbia for almost 5 months now, and I could not be happier. The team I am working with are amazing, I’m finding the field more interesting than I even anticipated, and I have complete control over my projects.

Scaling up from the PhD is difficult. I’m trying to push myself to think about the big questions I want to answer, and design 5 year projects that can make a tiny dent in the problem. So I’m consistently finding myself daunted. It feels sometimes like I need to do everything at once!

Which I can’t, even if I wanted to. And I don’t want to. Life outside the lab is good. I’m engaged, now, and we sit on the couch and laugh, and take our dog for a walk. Today we caught the last bit of snow on the Vancouver mountains, and it was glorious.

So it’s a vicious cycle. I feel like I should be doing everything, but I don’t want to do everything, because I need to nurture my life outside the lab, which makes me feel like I’m not doing enough, which… well, you get the idea.

I need to remember that the best that anyone can do is make a plan, and follow it through one step at a time. Nothing was ever gained by worrying about the problems that are 10 steps down the line from what I’m working on at this moment. I need to keep checking up on the future, making sure it’s still there, but if I’m not waist-deep in the present then it’ll steam-roll me when it finally arrives.

Anyway, enough introspection. I’m back to regular programming next week.

Love,

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– J

Sucker-punch antibiotics, DINOSAURS, and new hope for Canadian science – Sciencish News for 9/11/2015 (part 2)

The show keeps on going! For Part 2 of Sciencish News we’ve got a brilliant way to track bacteria to their hiding places, some spectacular dinosaur finds, and high, high hopes for the future of Canadian science. Read on, won’t you? (though if you missed it, here’s Part 1 of the news)

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Get ‘em where the sun don’t shine

The bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, or “golden staph” as it’s sometimes known, causes thousands of deaths every year. Outbreaks in hospitals are a problem, and resistance to most antibiotics means that small-scale infections can quickly get out of hand. Combine this with the ability to switch to a “persistent” lifestyle, wherein bacteria go covert and hide out in human cells without raising the suspicion of the immune system, and it’s no wonder that researchers are scrambling to find new ways to combat staph.

Researchers from the biotechnology company Genentech, out of San Francisco, USA, have unveiled a promising new weapon in this fight. They noted that antibiotics were often ineffective at killing staph that had invaded human host cells, where the bacteria replicate. Staph can then re-emerge after antibiotic treatment to cause a new round of infection. Genentech scientists therefore set about designing a drug that could access these reserve forces. They settled on an inactive “prodrug” derived from the antibiotic rifampicin, conjugated to an antibody. Antibodies are protein molecules naturally produced by the immune system, and work by binding tight to the surface of invading bacteria or viruses. They are also extremely specific for their target of choice, and the Genentech researchers found their antibody-antibiotic conjugate bound tightly to the surface of staph cells. In fact, it bound so tight that when a bacteria invaded a human host cell it brought any antibody-antibiotic conjugates with it. Once inside a host cell, human digestive enzymes break the bond connecting the antibody and antibiotic. This activated the antibiotic, and now the staph found themselves trapped inside a host cell along with an extremely deadly drug! Even more impressive, when staph accidentally brought the antibody-antibiotic conjugate with it into a cell that already contained “persistent” bacteria that had been hiding out, it also killed these bacteria. The antibody-antibiotic conjugate appeared much more effective than existing frontline antibiotics. Part of this effectiveness may be because, having been specifically targeted to the staph by the antibody and then brought into the enclosed space of a host cell, the antibiotic becomes extremely concentrated, as opposed to other non-targeted antibiotics that disseminate throughout the entire body. This work opens up exciting new possibilities for employing similar strategies with other pathogens.

Find the paper here

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Warming feathers and giant raptors

It’s hard to believe that, when I was a kid, it was considered controversial to say that dinosaurs had feathers. Nowadays, we’ve come to accept that at least the majority of therapods – two-legged dinosaurs – were downright fabulous, and probably bore all sorts of plumage. But the purpose of feathers for these “non-avian” dinosaurs remains controversial. Now, a description of a spectacularly preserved Ornithomimus by researchers from the University of Alberta, Canada, has shed some light on the mystery. Ornithomimus (meaning “bird-mimic”) stood a little taller than an adult human, and would likely have eaten a wide variety of plants and animals (see image below). This new specimen, a 75-million year old animal that is so well preserved that even skin from the leg to the body are retained, has shown that Ornithomimus’ body and tail were covered with feathers. Like a modern ostrich, however, its legs were bare. This suggests that, like ostriches, Ornithomimus‘ body was covered with feathers to keep it warm, while bare legs allowed it to regulate its body temperature somewhat to prevent overheating. The strikingly avian-like morphology of this Ornithomimus makes the relationship between birds and dinosaurs just that bit clearer. I bet the tubby kid that Sam Neill traumatised at the start of Jurassic Park feels extra stupid now.
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Credit: Julius Cstonoyi

Credit: Julius Cstonoyi

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In other slightly mind-boggling dinosaur news, palaeontologists at the University of Kansas, USA, have described a new species of raptor that outshines almost all others. Named Dakotaraptor after the state it was found in, it is thought to have been around 5.5 metres long, and would have towered over an adult human. Like the famous dog-sized Velociraptor, Dakotaraptor would have been quick and deadly, built for agility. It is not the biggest raptor found to date – that honour stays with the 7 meter monster Utahraptor – but what is most striking is the famous sickle-shaped claw on each of its rear legs, characteristic of the raptors. It was an incredible 24 centimeters long, beating out even the beefier Utaraptor’s impressive 22 centimeters. The forearms of Dakotaraptor also show evidence of quill knobs, indicating it too was well-feathered.
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Credit: Emily Willoughby

Credit: Emily Willoughby

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Find the papers here
and here

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New life for Canadian science

Canadian scientists were celebrating two weeks ago when the 10-year reign of Prime Minister Stephen Harper was brought to an end. The Harper administration had been repeatedly accused of ignoring scientific advice on environmental issues and climate change; of defunding chief government grants bodies; of devaluing “basic” research that did not have direct industry outcomes; and silencing government-funded scientists from speaking about their work without explicit permission. There was hope that much of that would change with the new Prime Minister and his Liberal government taking office last Tuesday.

Now, early signs indicate that there is reason to have hope. Canada finds itself with a new minister, a Minister of Science. Kirsty Duncan will be the first person to take the reigns – a medical geographer who searched for frozen samples of Spanish flu in the permafrost of Norway, and earned herself a reputation as a genuine badarse. Her ministry will oversee mainly research-driven science, which doesn’t necessarily aim to have short-term outcomes for the general population. Meanwhile, the new Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development is Navdeep Bains. A former financial analyst, his ministry will concern itself more with applied research with industrial outcomes when it comes to science. I should hope that having two ministers will allow the tensions between “applied” and “basic” science to be dispelled in this country. However, it’s hard to see how much can be achieved without increasing funding of grants agencies: last year, only ~12% of grant applications submitted to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research were successful.

An added bonus is that Canada’s Minister of Environment now has “and Climate Change” added to their title, giving hope that the latter issue will now have significantly more focus than the frequently denialist Harper government gave it. Catherin McKenna, a former lawyer who specialised in trade and international law, is filling the role, and has had to hit the ground running with climate talks in Paris beginning this week.

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That’s it! Hope you’re keeping well out there. Hey, I’m sorry, I’ve just been talking and talking, and I haven’t let you say anything. If you have any suggestions or questions please leave a Comment, or feel free to email me at thesciencishblog@gmail.com. Also, go ahead an follow me on Twitter @Sciencish.

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Bye for now.

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– J