If There's a Will ... National Action Can Make a Difference

"Postdoctoral fellows are important members of the university community and make valuable contributions to the academic research environment. This Statement of Principles encourages universities and other research institutions to recognize these contributions and to offer the best working environment possible to their postdoctoral fellows." So begins the Statement of Principles , a 1999 policy document developed by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). NSERC worked collaboratively with three federal agencies in Canada to establish these principles for the integration of postdocs into university policies.

The publication and dissemination of the NSERC Statement of Principles, have contributed to an increased awareness of the working conditions of postdocs and stimulated institutional reform efforts. Although the document is a statement of principles, not enforceable regulations, the Canadian experience is instructive; it can be examined as a possible model for effecting change.

NSERC and the Role of Funding Agencies

A national survey of postdocs conducted in the late 1990s, revealed serious concerns about the working conditions of postdocs, including low salaries, a lack of benefits, and insufficient institutional recognition. The study also showed considerable variances in the treatment of postdocs among Canadian universities. The publication of the survey findings encouraged NSERC to take action.

NSERC is a Canadian federal government council that funds research, the training of research scientists and engineers, and research-based innovation. NSERC invited two additional federal agencies, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to join the effort. Both are also major stakeholders in postdoc workforce issues. In an attempt to strengthen the influence of its recommendations, NSERC drew from extant policies of several Canadian universities, and it sought input from various educational agencies and associations (e.g., Canadian Association of University Research Administrators, Fonds pour la Formation de Chercheurs et l'Aide à la Recherche).

The collaborative efforts NSERC took in developing the Statement of Principles raised the probability of generating change, but also built a foundation for lasting reform. By referring to research germane to the subject, NSERC improved the odds of developing guidelines about the postdoc workplace. By including other stakeholders in development of the principles, NSERC broadened the base of support for action. And by using extant postdoc policies as a starting point, they leveraged existing resources and demonstrated ownership of postdoc principles by other prestigious stakeholders.

Teresa Brychcy, the director of NSERC's Scholarships and Fellowships Program, described the council's statement as one that seeks voluntary compliance by grantees to establish local policies on postdoc matters (where none already exists), designate an office to deal with postdoctoral affairs, and register all postdoc positions. "By issuing the Statement of Principles," said Brychcy, "and by following up on a regular basis with the grantees as to the status of their individual policies, NSERC is reminding universities and other research institutions of our hope that they will address postdoctoral issues in a timely manner." A recent NSERC follow-up inquiry found 22 of 68 institutions have indicated that they either had an existing policy or developed one after receiving the NSERC Statement. Another 20 universities were in the process of developing a policy statement, and seven universities indicated an intention to develop a policy in the future. Nine Canadian universities that hosted few or no postdocs had no policy owing to their size.

As this example suggests, government agencies committed to supporting postdocs and their work have the capacity to make a difference in the postdoc workplace. Funding awards are routinely contingent upon proof of the grantees' compliance with various standards and conditions set by the government agency--NSERC has simply extended the idea to cover the employment conditions of postdocs.

Wayne Marsh, director of research services at the University of Guelph, said that based on the NSERC actions over the past 2 years, his university has returned to the task of formulating its own postdoc policies. Marsh suggests that in those institutions where the moral suasion of voluntary compliance with NSERC's guidelines fail to overcome the various barriers to change, the competition to hire postdocs ultimately will become the stimulus for reform. Marsh believes that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find postdoctoral fellows. "To attract the best candidates," he said, "it will be in the interest of the university to formulate guidelines and policies that reflect the value of the postdocs to the university's mission."

The university as an employer must begin to think competitively about attracting and retaining new postdocs. The competitive edge for any one postdoctoral position would surely go to the university with a culture and value informed by the NSERC Statement of Principles. Such an employer would have clear and published policies and guidelines on salaries; health, life, and disability insurance; paid holidays and vacations; sick and parental leave; pensions; services (e.g., access to library and electronic mail, child care, parking, sports facilities, career counseling and job placement); and inclusion in departmental/faculty governance activities, such as committee service.

One Institution's Response

Finding the will to address the conditions of the postdoc workplace is key to initiating reform. The Hospital for Sick Children (HSC), associated with the University of Toronto, and is supported by grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). HSC reinforced its commitment to its postdocs and graduate student trainees when it established a Research Training Centre (RTC). The RTC vision is to coordinate all research activities at HSC, and to lead the institution forward in becoming a premier center for academic training. The largest pediatric hospital in Canada, HSC employs more than 240 postdocs, about 50% of HSC its trainee population. "Since the Center's beginning," said Amira Klip, director of RTC, "its management committee has focused on developing consistent guidelines and assessment practices for each research training program [including the postdoctoral training programs]".

Some of the benefits and opportunities listed in the RTC guidelines for postdocs include:

  • A letter of offer of appointment stipulating the duration of the position, level of funding, and other pertinent conditions.

  • Designated status as "employee" of HSC.

  • Benefits, including medical and dental, provided on a cost-shared basis.

  • Access to the HSC Conflict Resolution office.

  • Seminars on career development issues, such as proposal writing, ethics, writing and publishing a scientific paper, time management.

  • Maternity leave and 6-month deferral of award for postdocs on RTC awards, and as per CIHR guidelines for those postdocs supported by CIHR monies.

Other employment issues identified by the Statement of Principles are still being examined at HSC. These include limiting the duration of the postdoc training period, offering options for a pension plan, stipulating vacation time, tracking sick leave, and requiring an annual review of performance and mutual expectations between the supervisor and employee. RTC has sought to address these employment issues by suggesting standards, or by explicitly stating in the guidelines that the issues are under consideration. For example, the RTC states that in regard to salaries it " recommends [author's emphasis] adherence to CIHR guidelines for minimum funding for all postdocs; currently set at $35,000 Cd per year."

"Transformation is a challenging task, " Klip explained, "as the research training programs at HSC are diverse. But understanding the complexities of tradition within an institution is important in implementing effective change. And so too," she continued, "is developing an understanding of how an organization works important for the trainee in becoming an effective professional".

Klip contends that RTC's successful reform has turned on several factors. One factor is leadership from the top; that is, the full support of the director of the HSC Research Institute, in which the RTC is housed. Another factor, said Klip, is the time-intensive work of the Center's management committee members, who have created a tradition of examining all implications for any one issue. By deliberating with the whole of the institution in mind rather than one's specific turf they have taken better decisions. Klip also attributes the acceptance of the RTC guidelines by supervisors to opportunities such as the monthly staff meetings where supervisors can comment during the development of the guidelines. "To effect change within the scientific community," Klip advises, "guidelines need to be born both from a respect for the members of the community, and through a mechanism that allows standards to arise from all levels of the community infrastructure, not solely from a bureaucratic hierarchy."

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