Postdoc Production: The Canadian Institutes of Health Research Perspective


Does Canada have enough PhD graduate students and postdocs? The answer is that we need more. A lot more. Canada has taken on a challenge, stated by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in January 2001 as: ?Canada must have one of the most innovative economies in the world. A key element in getting there is to ensure that our research and development effort per capita is amongst the top five countries in the world.? As of 2001 we were 15th (according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).

The problems that must be overcome to meet the ?15th to 5th? target can be summarized as inadequate investment in research and development by all sectors, especially industry (except biotech), and inadequate recruitment and training of researchers.

Canada?s Innovation Strategy

The Canadian Federal Government?s proposed response is described in ?Canada?s Innovation Strategy?, which was released earlier this year. One of the strategy?s goals is to ?vastly increase public and private investments in knowledge infrastructure to improve Canada?s R&D performance.? The targets include reaching the ranking of number five in the world in terms of R&D performance and doubling the Government of Canada?s current investments in R&D by 2010.

According to the Innovation Strategy, Canada must more than double the number of research personnel in our labour force to become one of the top five countries in R&D performance by 2010. In academia alone, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada estimates that by 2010, more than 30,000 faculty will have to be hired or replaced. Other sectors besides universities--industry and government--will also need PhD graduates. Unfortunately, Statistics Canada figures for 1996 to 1998 show that the rate of PhD graduation at Canadian universities, in all subjects, has been less than 4000 per year, and only about half of these PhDs have been earned in science and technology. According to the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies document ?Educating the Best Minds for the Knowledge Economy: Setting the Stage for Success?, enrollment in PhD programs as a proportion of the population is actually declining. Thus, another goal of the Innovation Strategy is to ?develop the most skilled and talented labour force in the world?, which includes targets to increase the admission of master?s and PhD students at Canadian universities by an average of 5% per year and significantly improve Canada?s recruitment of foreign talent.

The Government of Canada will be considering three initiatives to recruit and retain the best graduate students from Canada and from around the world, and to improve the quality of research training: 1) provide financial incentives to students in graduate programs and double the number of graduate fellowships and scholarships awarded by the federal granting councils; 2) create a world-class scholarship program of the same prestige and scope as the Rhodes Scholarship; and 3) establish a cooperative research program to support graduate and postgraduate students, and some undergraduates, wishing to combine formal academic training with extensive applied research experience in a work setting.

CIHR Strategic Training Program Grants

What is CIHR doing to help provide increased numbers of well-trained researchers to meet the government?s innovation goals? As Canada's major federal funding agency for health research, one of CIHR?s core aims is to build capacity within Canada?s health research community through the training and development of researchers. A sustained increase in CIHR?s budget has allowed CIHR to increase the number and value of our awards for graduate students and postdocs, as an incentive to continue in a research career.

The Postdocs? Perspective

What do trainees think about building a better health research training environment? To find out, in January 2002 CIHR brought together 30 graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and clinician-scientists who are conducting research at universities across Canada and abroad, from across the spectrum of health research. What they told us can be found in the meeting report entitled ? Visions of the Future: Health Researchers of Tomorrow Speak Out.? The report states: ?It is clear that Canadian trainees are calling on CIHR to play a direct role in building a stronger training environment through improved funding, innovative grants and awards, support for a virtual network of health researchers, and expertise in knowledge translation. But, they also foresee an indirect role for CIHR, which calls for leadership in the area of career development and national quality standards.?

CIHR believes that to meet the requirements of the innovation strategy, a new approach to training in Canada is required. Traditionally, research training is thought of as a pipeline, with students in one end, professors out the other. We prefer to think of it as a tree, with many branches extending from the trunk of the training experience, each branch representing a different career path, in industry, government, the health professions, and academia (for more on the ?tree? paradigm, see this report?). Therefore, CIHR?s 13 institutes introduced Strategic Training Program Grants as the first major strategic initiative of the new organization, in partnership with a number of provincial agencies and health charities. The objectives of the CIHR Strategic Initiative in Health Research Training are to:

  • Increase the capacity of the Canadian health research community, particularly in areas where it can be demonstrated that there is a special need for more researchers and resources.

  • Enable recruitment and retention of highly qualified individuals from Canada and abroad to undertake health research training in Canada.

  • Support the development of innovative, effective, transdisciplinary, and internationally competitive training programs.

  • Engage new mentors and educators in the development and evolution of training strategies.

  • Encourage programs that:

    • Embrace diverse research disciplines and methodological approaches to resolve major health issues and scientific challenges

    • Integrate training and discussion on the ethical conduct of research and related ethical issues

    • Develop and measure the individual's communication, teamwork, and leadership skills, i.e., grant writing and peer review.

  • The first competition for Strategic Training Program Grants attracted an amazing 235 applications, from which CIHR?s institutes and partners funded 51 teams from virtually every area of health research and every region of Canada, who will receive an average of $300,000 per year for 6 years. Team members are from universities, teaching hospitals, and research institutions. Funding under the program will provide for: stipends for trainees; development and coordination of program structure, format, and content; development and dissemination of educational materials; and travel of trainees and mentors between training locations. The second call for applications was announced in May 2002 and is targeted to priority areas identified by the institutes, such as bioinformatics, cognitive impairment in aging, obesity and healthy body weight, and the interface of population and public health and health services/policy research.

    Other CIHR Initiatives

    Listed below are several other CIHR initiatives that aim to have a positive impact on research training.

    • One of the difficulties that postdoctoral researchers face when they are abroad is isolation from the Canadian research community. In support of the repatriation of Canadian postdoctoral researchers, CIHR offers a supplementary year of funding for training in Canada, or a "Canada Year", to Canadians and permanent residents who are recipients of either the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Postdoctoral Fellowships for Foreign Researchers or Wellcome Trust/CIHR Postdoctoral Fellowships.

    • CIHR also sponsors a transition award from postdoc to first independent position, called the Senior Research Fellowship. The program has two phases: Phase 1 (Training) provides a stipend for up to 2 years of support and a research allowance. Phase 2 (Salary) provides a contribution to the salary of the recipient for 2 years plus a research allowance and fringe benefits.

    • The ACADRE (Aboriginal Capacity and Development Research Environments) Program supports increased aboriginal participation in health research and is sponsored by the Institute of Aboriginal Peoples? Health.

    • Retraining/career change awards, such as the Career Transition Awards, are offered by the Institute of Genetics.

    • CIHR training awards can be held abroad by Canadian citizens and permanent residents if training in a specific area is not available in Canada.

    In response to what we have heard from our trainees and others, CIHR is considering additional initiatives in support of the careers of young researchers. Among these initiatives are more undergraduate research awards, networking funds for trainees, more training program grants, further increases to trainee stipends and research allowances, improved support programs for clinician-scientists, and adding trainees to peer-review committees to learn about the grants process.

    With the dramatic need for more research personnel in the Canadian labour force and the increased support that the federal government is likely to provide for research training in response to this need, there is a bright future for young researchers in Canada. Canada is determined to move into the top rank of nations with a knowledge-based economy, and a well-trained research workforce is key to the success of this strategy.

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