Monday, February 13, 2006

More on the OHRI "Salary Scandal"

In addition to the email Coward mentioned today, Ron Worton also responded to the Citizen's article in a letter published by the citizen today. Basically the letter points out that instead of feeling exploited by an institute that pays them salaries below the poverty line, students should feel grateful and privilged that thy can experience "the excitement of scientific discovery and the rare participate in pushing the boundaries of knowledge". He also points out that OHRI student pay scales are "akin to stipends received by hospital residents training in a medical specialty or recently graduated lawyers articling in a law firm". Well, grad students themselves certainly are akin to residents and young lawyers; we are all highly intelligent, rigorously educated, competent in our respective fields and of similar ages. However to suggest that our payscales are in line with our peers in these professions is simply not true. Medical residents for example, even those who work side by side with grad students in OHRI labs, recieve stipends that pay them over double grad student salaries. On the other hand, Worton and the OHRI can't really be held responsible for current graduate stipend pay scales, since they are mostly set by the government granting agencies who fund all students in medical research across Canada such as the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, National Cancer Institute of Canada, NSERC as well as provinicial agencies.

All in all, I feel that the $17k stipend + tuition waiver that most students at the Univeristy of Ottawa recieve is more than fair. With it, we can easily pay for basic living expenses while living a life filled with learning, discussion, high (and low) -tech lab toys, and the occaisional social event of the century. Indeed, as others have recently pointed out, at the OHRI we enjoy some of the most generous stipends of any grad students at the U of O. Apparently some students at the core BMI deparment studying in poorly funded labs recieve even less and certainly those in most other disciplines, such as the Arts, recieve little or no stipend.

What's disappointing is that while the hundreds of the U of O's most brilliant and able students, technicians, post-doctoral fellows and senior scientists who actually do the research at the OHRI selflessly dedicate years of their lives solely for (in Worton's words) "the love of science and the desire to expand knowledge in the hope that it will improve the health of people everywhere", it seems that a handful of individuals making up the OHRI leadership are dedicated to "improving the health of people everywhere" while getting rich.

You can bet that Ron Worton believes in the humanitarian and scientific value of what he's doing, it's obvious from all he accomplished during a long and distinguished career in muscular dystrophy research. But he also has other reasons to be at the OHRI - 280,220 of them to be exact. That was his 2004 salary, $280,219.99 +$26,146.57 in taxable benefits (info's available through the Ontario Government's Salary Disclousure Act). His salary has nearly doubled since he was named CEO of the OHRI (he pulled down a more reasonable $158,446.36 + $553.56 in benefits in 1999). Another OHRI administrator, Michel Chretien, younger brother of former Prime Minister Jean, pulled down a cool $245,416.60 + $31,646.94 in benefits in 2004 in his position as Program Director, Diseases of Aging. Rashmi Kothari, Worton's Associate Director, gets another $123,000 from OHRI coffers. So these 3 guys alone are pulling down a total of just over $700,000, meaning that 1.4% of the OHRI's $74M publicly-funded budget goes straight into their pockets. Another way of looking at it is that the combined salaries of these three could fund 41 graduate student researchers, which is about 1/5 the number currently working in OHRI labs.

One of the major focuses of the OHRI is producing advances in biotechnology and in subsequently commercializing their medical applications. This is happening as we speak; research currently being done by U of O researchers produces 25 invention disclosures, 10 patents and 3-5 licensing agreements per year for the OHRI. The biotech sector being in its infancy, you can bet this number is only going to increase. The primary aim of commercializing research in this way is to produce future profits. In the case of profits emerging from research done at the OHRI, these belong to the OHRI, which means Ron Worton and his board decide what to do with them. So with economists predicting the biotech sector to yield trillions of dollars in commercial revenues from North American markets alone, you can except these guys to get even more ridiculously rich as the work done by OHRI researchers past, present and future is exploited commercially.

It's a beautiful thing that so many of Canada's brightest students, post-docs, tech and senior scientists are willing to put in long hours at the lab to further medical science for the benefit of all society, asking for little more than basic living expenses in return. To dwell on the selfish actions of a powerful few within our institute in a sense detracts from the amazing goals we are all working toward together. On the other hand, it also seems important that we remain attentive to the actions of those have the power to corrupt such an important public institution, for such corruption could one day undermine all of our efforts and accomplishments.