Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Banting Fellowships: Growing Pains

The requirements for the much-ballyhooed Banting postdocs have finally been posted. These are the funding awards announced by the Canadian Government earlier this year which look like very fancy versions of the Australian Super Science Fellowship program. They appear designed to attempt to keep Canadian talent in Canada and are set to become the most prestigious fellowships in the Nation offered to young researchers. Yet, the first year of disbursements will likely feature a very shallow pool which could lead to mixed results for the program a few years down the road. As well a structural issue with eligibility threatens to keep the best candidates from the program.

Quickly, this year's Banting Fellowships would pay $70,000 a year (taxable) to those who graduated with a PhD between Nov 2007 and Dec 2010, i.e. 0-3 years post PhD. Departments would be permitted to supplement this extremely generous salary and would be encouraged to provide substantial research/travel funding to allow the chosen candidates to carry out an ambitious program. Since a significant commitment is required from individual universities and departments, they would be required to nominate only fellows they would be willing to support. Thus the position is somewhere between a traditional postdoc and a starting faculty position.

So far, this all sounds good, however, there is one clause which looks innocuous on the surface, but which has a significant impact on who would be eligible to apply in the first year of the program. (Complete eligibility requirements can be found here, as provided by UBC) Specifically, the eligibility requirements prohibit anyone who currently holds an NSERC, SSHRC or CIHR postdoctoral award which runs out after March 31, 2011 from applying. Since these awards may be cancelled by the applicant at any time, could you announce your intent to terminate the award on March 31st and still apply? The rules say no. Thus those of us who currently hold the most prestigious awards in the country are barred from applying.

You must be thinking that this is no big deal. After all, why would you want to provide awards to people who are already awarded? Better to spread the wealth around. Well, the danger here is in the timing. Since academic jobs and grants are scarce, PhDs often start looking for a job long before they need one. In fact, if your funding runs out less than a year from now, you are in hot water whose temperature will be slowly rising as you approach that cut off date. Making things worse, is the timing of the award to exclude next year's may graduates in contrast to NSERC's usual application cycle.

Here is what I mean by that last paragraph. According to the rules and regulations, only the following people would be permitted to apply:

(1) PhDs who have not yet graduated, but will do so before Dec 31 of this year, and were losers in the spring NSERC competition, or have not begun looking for a job.
(2) Postdocs that are less than 3 years out (mostly 2 years out, due to typical graduation in May) but have been unable to secure funding beyond next March.
(3) Canadians doing postdocs abroad who wish to return home.

There are issues with all these groups. For (1) and (2) either NSERC or their advisors have shown a lack of faith in their abilities, or they have been unlucky (due to the economy, for instance). But the situation is worst for (3). This is the group you would most like to attract, however, they would need to be well-known to a Canadian department in order to merit being nominated above that department's own. Experience has shown that a star of that magnitude is more interested in a faculty position 2 years out than a second postdoc, though there may be some who see this as a bridging position that would make them more attractive to a particular university. However, there is a reason that they left for greener pastures in the first place, and that reason is not likely to have been money.

This suggests that the pool of applicants for the fellowships will be exceptionally shallow this year, and the recipients may not be the top Canadian early career researchers due to the eligibility restrictions. This should be better beginning next year, however, there is one change I would make: extend the eligibility of graduation out to the middle of the next year from the end of March. This would align the fellowships with the NSERC cycle and allow applicants to apply to both simultaneously.

As awareness of the Banting fellowships grows, the program will improve. But it looks a bit rushed this year, almost as if the politicians who made the announcement are desperate to have recipients in front of the camera ASAP.

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