Tag Archives: science jobs

Encouraging STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers while opportunities decline in Canada

The problem never seems to get solved. One end of the organization or institution makes a decision without considering the impact on those affected. Take for example the current drive to encourage more students to undertake STEM (science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics) careers when there are few job opportunities (except for engineers).

The University of British Columbia has just announced a science outreach toolkit, from the Aug. 30, 2012 news release on EurekAlert,

Outreach programs that offer a taste of real-world science and pair secondary students with enthusiastic young researchers are key to promoting careers in science and technology, according to University of British Columbia researchers.

In a paper published this week in PLoS Computational Biology, UBC researchers document their work on the Genomics Field Trip Program hosted at the Michael Smith Laboratories (MSL). Joanne Fox, Jennifer McQueen and Jody Wright outline the benefits of research-based field trips, offering a blueprint for designing science outreach programs.

The Genomics Field Trip program encourages exploration of the sciences through a full day genomics experience which takes place at the MSL laboratories. Program instructors are typically UBC graduate students who benefit from the experience by developing their ability to communicate scientific ideas to the general public. They also develop skills in lesson design and delivery, allowing them to enhance their instructional skills, something that does not always occur in teaching assistantship positions.

Fox hopes the success of the Genomics Field Trip Program will inspire other institutions to develop similar programs. The recommendations included in her paper can be used as a blueprint for science programs and an online genomics toolkit provides valuable information for lesson plans.

“This type of program helps graduate students remember why science is so exciting, and in turn inspires the next generation of scientists,” Fox explains.

The toolkit available here is designed for grade nine classes and it looks to be quite engaging. However, it is a disconcerting effort in light of the current situation for many STEM graduates. Nassif Ghoussoub (a mathematician at the University of British Columbia) in an Aug. 20, 2012 posting on his Piece of Mind blog writes about the diminishing opportunities for postgraduate science work (Note: I have removed links),

Canada’s “Natural Science and Engineering Research Council” has grown uncomfortable with the rapidly dwindling success rate in its postdoctoral fellowship programme, the latest having clocked in at 7.8%. So, it has decided to artificially inflate these rates by limiting the number of times young Canadian scholars can apply for such awards to … once. Never mind that the pathetic $40,000 salary (see comments below for corrections) for a highly trained Canadian post-doc hasn’t changed in more than 25 years, young Canadian scientists will now be fighting tooth and nail for the privilege of living on the fringe of the poverty line while trying to jumpstart their research careers. Welcome to Canada’s new lottery system for deciding the future of the nation’s capacity for advanced study and research.

I guess something needed to be done to cover up the fact that NSERC is now awarding 66% fewer fellowships than it did 5 years ago. Last year, we wondered whether the following numbers reflected a policy shift at NSERC or just collateral damage.

  • (2008) 250 awards/ 1169 applicants
  • (2009) 254 awards/ 1220 applicants
  • (2010) 286 awards/ 1341 applicants
  • (2011) 133 awards/ 1431 applicants
  • (2012) 98 awards/ 1254 applicants

These 98 fellowships are to be shared by 20 scientific disciplines and to be split among the 59 PhD-granting Canadian universities.

This theme is also addressed in an Aug. 24, 2012 posting by Jonathan Thon on the Black Hole blog which is now being hosted by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), Note: I have removed a link,

It should come as no surprise that by increasing the supply of graduate students (and in turn post-doctoral fellows), we have arranged to produce more knowledge workers than we can employ, creating a labor-excess economy that keeps labor costs down and productivity high (How much is a scientist worth?) – but is this what we want? While advantageous in the short-term, there is little room for additional gains and a more efficient and productive system will need to be created if we wish to actualize research-based economic growth.

As for opportunities in the industrial sector, Canada has a longstanding reputation for exceptionally low rates of industrial R&D (research and development).

I’ve yet to see the programme for the 2012 Canadian Science Policy Conference taking place in Calagary (Alberta) from Nov. 5 – 7, 2012 but I’m hoping this will be on the agenda.