Education and training of scientists panel at the 2011 Canadian Science Policy Conference

On the heels of my last posting which featured Science magazine’s 2011 Dance Your Ph.D. contest, it seems like a good idea to follow up with another science student-themed posting.

Dr. David Kent who will be moderating the Education and training panel at the 2011 Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) being held in Ottawa, Canada from Nov. 16 – 18, 2011 has enthusiastically granted me an interview. (My Oct. 19, 2011 posting featured a description of the 2011 CSPC conference and highlighted some of the events.)

First, here’s a little bit about David (from the 2011 CSPC conference website),

Dr. David Kent is a CIHR [Canadian Institutes of Health Research] postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge, UK. He currently sits on the executive of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars and created the website The Black Hole which provides information on and analysis of issues related to science trainees in Canada. Previously, Dr. Kent served as joint coordinator for the UBC branch of the Let’s Talk Science Partnership Program (2004-07), an award winning national science outreach program. Dr. Kent grew up in St. John’s, NL, obtained a B.Sc. in Genetics and English Literature at the University of Western Ontario and completed his Ph.D. in blood stem cell biology at the University of British Columbia. He has been awarded scholarships or fellowships from the CIHR, NSERC, the Canadian Stem Cell Network, the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, and the Lady Tata Memorial Trust. His current laboratory research focuses on normal blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers.

Here’s the description of the panel (Education and training of scientists) David will be moderating,

Over the past 15 years, there has been an enormous shift in the human resources performing scientific research. The training period has lengthened significantly and adjustments must be made to address the growing concerns of young scientists. Many individuals, who do not have permanent positions, share a unique set of experiences and challenges that need to be better addressed in order to avoid wasting the substantial resources invested in their education and training.

This panel aims to address two main themes:

  1. Are we producing too many biomedical research trainees?
  2. What careers will the large majority of highly specialized PhDs undertake and who should facilitate these transitions?

Presentations and discussion from Alan Bernstein (Founding Director of CIHR), Angela Crawley (Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars), Suzanne Fortier (President of NSERC), and Olga Stachova (COO, MITACS) will be introduced and moderated by David Kent (University of Cambridge and founder of, aka The Black Hole).

Here’s  the interview,

  • I’m intrigued by the description for this panel which asks a highly specific question (Are there too many biomedical research trainees?) and a much more general question (What careers will the majority of highly specialized PhD undertake and who should facilitate the transition?). Assuming that you proposed the panel, how did you arrive at these two questions in particular?

The first question definitely has its origins in Jeff Sharom’s piece in Hypothesis Journal ( who queried whether we were producing too many biomedical trainees.  It is also a great way to capture a large issue under a simple title, but by no means would I consider it specific and I think just about anybody you ask would have the answer “it depends…” followed by discussions ranging from the demands of a knowledge-based economy to keeping young people out of the workforce for a few more years.

As for the second question, I see this one having a much more straightforward answer as it is really an attempt to assign responsibility to a sector of society to help deal with the problem – I’d like the panel and delegates to help steer future advocacy efforts to address the fundamental issues.

  • Given that you are currently working as a postdoc at the University of Cambridge, would you be asking these same questions on a UK panel and if not, why not?

The UK is a very different beast, but I think there is still overlap – in particular, the challenges facing those seeking an academic post and those debating whether or not to leave the academy.  The one thing that is very different in the UK – and I’m torn as to whether or not it’s a good thing or a bad thing – is that time-to-degree is substantially shorter with PhD programs lasting 3-4 years.  If you’re equipping people to go off into other careers, this is brilliant because they don’t get stuck in a very long PhD, but rather come out with the nuts and bolts of a PhD training.  However, this sort of system also tends to lead to what I would call “safe” projects that will yield results in the limited time frame and leave little room for exploring risky projects.  We talk about this in an old entry on the Black Hole called “The Rise of the Cookie-cutter PhD” (

  • Will you be acting as a moderator only or will you also speak to the questions? If you do speak to the questions, could you give a preview of your presentation?

I will introduce the panel and in doing so will try to set the stage for the audience – chart the change in demographics, highlight the issue of career stasis in academic labs, etc.  Much of my presentation will draw from entries on the Black Hole such as the Changing Human Resources in AcademiaSay no to the second Postdoc, and Professionals in High Demand.  Briefly, I’ll show statistics on the longer training times and summarize the unrest in academic labs.  In the moderation of the panel discussion, I’ll include some resources on how some universities have started to tackle the issues and some innovative programs that are helping young academics make choices sooner.

  • What do you hope will be the outcome(s) of having this panel at the 2011 CSPC?

For me, the biggest mission is awareness – I want policy makers, granting councils, and industry leaders to recognize the growth in highly trained scientists and the immense number of talented people that often finds themselves “stuck”.  These are people who have trained for nearly a decade and only a fraction of them can end up on the path they have been trained for (unlike doctors, lawyers, accounts)

A complete bonus would be to get some strategies for unsticking these people and some guidance on where to broach the issue.  We’ll see how it goes!

  • Is there anything you would like to add?

The only final thing I would suggest is for young scientists who have any sort of inclination toward or interest in science policy to get out there early – two or three days at a conference like the CSPC can be career changing or it could simply allow you to better understand the machinery that ends up impacting how you will be funded, how your trainees will be trained, and how research gets (or doesn’t get) incorporated into government policy.  Take off the blinders once in a while and try something new.

Thank you for taking the time to provide some insight into your topic and your presentation. I wish you and your panel the best of luck at the conference.

ETA Nov. 9, 2011: For Twitter purposes I decided to call this panel the ‘Kill all your darlings/science grads” panel. “Kill all your darlings” is a phrase I came across that describes what writers sometimes have to do when they edit a piece and must cut a wonderful sentence or phrase because it doesn’t fit. I gather that there is a problem (not only in Canada) with fitting science grads into the larger science enterprise.

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  1. Pingback: Science attitude kicks in by 10 years old « FrogHeart

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