Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Unbalanced Funding of Canadian Medical Research Trainees

We have recently discussed some of the funding voids in science, mainly the issue of the dwindling number of permanent science jobs available for the comparably massive and growing number of PhDs being churned out by universities, at least based on the oft-cited data from the US system.

How does the situation compare here in Canada? My gut sense is that things are better here, and personally I've found the availability of funding more than adequate throughout my grad studies. But in considering my prospects for post-doctoral studies in the near future, the ability to secure independent funding seems of paramount importance. In my line of work, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research would be the first agency to look to for funding. And as it turns out, looks like the competition is pretty damn intense. The success rates for the last CIHR fellowship competition were a meagre 13.1% (68/520). Interestingly, the success rate of a concurrent competition for Master's level CIHR graduate scholarships was a whopping 61% (218/357).

This data would seem to suggest that the CIHR funding scheme encourages 5-fold more students to enter into medical research training than the system can ultimately support at later stages. Is this a good thing? Surely this drives competition as trainees ascend through the hierarchy of science, and perhaps it is best to fund a minimal number of post-docs if there's a similar shortage of full-fledged scientist positions once post-doctoral training is complete. And maybe not all Master's students need to or are interested in continuing their training to become professional scientists. Perhaps it is valuable for students to obtain Master's degreee in research in preparation for other careers such as medicine, law, business or used-car sales. Then again, is it really the CIHR's responsibility to fund these students when it seems many qualified post-doctoral candidates are falling through the cracks?

With only 68 awards given to 520 post-doctoral applicants, either Canada is producing way too many PhDs who still aspire to being professional scientists, or the CIHR is not giving out enough fellowships.

But hey, Canadian junior hockey also produces a lot of players who wish they could make it in the pro ranks of the NHL but never get the chance. Great for the ones who make it, but maybe it kind of sucks for some of the guys who left home and school at 14 to do nothing but play hockey and then return home to suddenly discover they are adults without a lot of skills they can use to make a living. Anyway, I guess Canada probably has enough pro hockey players, but do we have enough big-league scientists?