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Feds and CIHR announce new virtual institutes; new real positions for young scientists

On 25 July, in a joint press release, the minister of health and the president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) announced the details of the CIHR's new Virtual Research Institutes. And insiders at the CIHR say that with the formation of these institutes comes the formation of new positions for young scientists interested in science policy.

Although the concept behind these institutes was announced 2 months ago with the creation of the CIHR ( see related Next Wave news story), the big news last week was the themes, or research disciplines, of the 13 new institutes.

The new institutes will be created in the areas of aboriginal people's health; circulatory and respiratory health; cancer research; gender and health; genetics; health services and policy research; healthy aging; human development, child, and youth health; infection and immunity; neurosciences, mental health, and addiction; musculoskeletal health and arthritis; nutrition, metabolism, and diabetes; and population and public health. Their mandates are to bring together, in a virtual way, researchers who are widely separated by geography and discipline, to focus on issues that affect the health of Canadians.

Each institute will focus on all medical issues associated with the topic, from basic biomedical research to the study of the cultural and socioeconomic dimensions of health. "We were very concerned about people feeling they belonged somewhere. The areas [of research] not explicitly captured will be incorporated somewhere, as the mandates [of the institutes] evolve," explained Kelly Van Koughnet, policy analyst at the CIHR.

With these new institutes come two new possibilities for young scientists interested in science policy, one paying, the other not. The first is that each director of the new institutes will need to work with the CIHR as the virtual institutes grow. This has resulted in newly formed industry liaison and integration agent positions within the CIHR. "This group will be integrating the institute into the support structure [at CIHR], communicating with the research community. We'll be looking for people with scientific backgrounds, so that they can relate to both the community and how the [scientific research] world works," explained Kelly Van Koughnet, policy analyst at the CIHR. The positions are currently 12- to 18-month, full-time positions, located at the CIHR in Ottawa.

The second new possibility for involvement in science policy comes from the Institute Advisory Boards that will be set up to advise each institute director. The goal is to have eight to 12 individuals, mostly from Canada, with a range and depth of experience. The CIHR goal is to make these boards diverse in terms of gender, linguistic preference, and career stage--which means there's room on the boards for young scientists from all across Canada. The boards will help build the institutes, develop their strategic plans and goals, and spread the word about what the institutes are all about.

Unfortunately, these positions don't pay, but they're a great new way for young scientists to get involved in creating the policy environment they'll have to live in. So far, few young scientists have applied or been nominated, primarily because they didn't think the positions were within their reach--historically, these positions went to research bigwigs who needed another feather in their cap. "The problem is, Canada doesn't have a history of young people on boards, so the cycle continues," explained Van Koughnet.

More information on the new institutes, and the positions available resulting from their creation, can be found at the CIHR Web site.