Unmuzzled Postdoc


I was lucky enough to be contacted by someone doing a Visiting Fellowship at a government lab recently who was willing to share their experiences “from the inside”. Always welcome of another perspective, I think this is a valuable one for anyone considering ticking the VF box on their NSERC postdoctoral applications, and provides some valuable information to let people know what they’re getting into.


Postdocs are a desperate bunch. We’re in the weird in-between world of not quite students, but not yet in permanent employ. Many of us float around for a few years (a little contact work here, a bit of consulting there…) in the search for a steady income.

With the success rates of NSERC postdocs at an all-time low, many of us are turning to alternative funding options, including the “Visiting Fellow in Government Labs” program that’s run through NSERC. It sounds appealing – $47,000 a year to work with high-calibre government scientists on applied questions. But there’s another side.

First off, NSERC contributes $0 to the VF program.  Yes, that’s $0.  All the funding comes from the government researcher’s budget.  So while you can apply to the VF program through NSERC and get put on a list of “pre-approved” candidates, until someone with $47,000 comes along, you’re out of luck. NSERC basically acts as a screening tool, and an annoying façade.

You see, even if you do partner with a government scientist (either before you apply, or from the pre-approved candidates list), the first line in your letter of offer will be something like “nothing in this letter of offer is to be construed as an offer of employment with the Government of Canada”. What?  Here’s how it works.

The government department that wants to “hire” you passes the $47,000 on to NSERC, who then dishes it out to you in convenient monthly instalments.  NSERC acts like the middleman.  And what does this mean for you? You’re not considered an employee. Except when you are. Stay with me.

Government postdocs through the VF program aren’t considered employees for what I would call the benefits – you can’t apply for internal job competitions, you don’t pay into the pension, and receive no benefits.  In my department, this also means I can’t get access to my work email anywhere but my Windows XP desktop at work (and the firewall keeps me from checking any other web-based email).  As postdocs, we’re often working long/odd hours at home, or trying to wrap up that manuscript in the evenings or whenever we have time.  Not so. But wait, there’s more!

As a government postdoc, you’re held to the same policies and standards as your pension-earning, full-time indeterminate boss.  This includes talking with media & the public, and travel.

Postdocs are supposed to be networking with other professionals, and trying to find work.  This often happens at scientific conferences, but imagine trying to plan your travel when it all has to be approved by several levels of management, could be denied, or even granted too late to go (or if you do go, the cost is insane).  Obviously not good for early-career researchers.

There’s no formal orientation to all of this – you’re expected to stumble through it on your own (or have your immediate boss explain things to you).  But many research scientists (or even entire divisions) have had so little experience with the VF program that they’re learning along with you.  In a perfect world, the VF program would be a gateway to identify likely candidates for federal research jobs, but sadly, the program’s potential is lost on the vast majority of people that make such decisions.

But if you choose to go down this route (and trust me, it’s not all bad), here are a few tips from the other side:

-expect a bureaucratic nightmare for at least your first month. Security clearance for your building, setting up your computer/email address, and whatnot will take longer than you might think.

-unlike all of your other payroll deposits, the first one will be a paper cheque, so check your mailbox (or see your admin staff if they squirrel cheques away somewhere safe)

-the environment is VERY different from what you might know from a university.  There are no undergraduates, and very few grad students/other postdocs.  Everything you do that might have been covered by your university department (e.g., phone, photocopying, stationary) is now tied to your supervisor’s research budget.

-talk with your boss ASAP about any travel you want to do; 6 months’ lead-time is not uncommon (especially for international travel).

Being a government postdoc can give you a unique perspective from another side of the research table, and it can be very rewarding.  Just be prepared, because it’s not what you expect.

-Muzzled Postdoc


It’s NOT just me…

Apparently, it’s more than just me that feels like something has gone bad in the refrigerator of Government Science.

My union, the Professional Institute of Public Servants, commissioned Environics Research to conduct a survey of it’s Research Scientist members a number of months ago. It’s received a good deal of attention from media outlets. In response to the report which indicates widespread and broad suppression of science in the Federal Government in informing policy, our Minister of Science and Technology responded, “Our government has made record investments in science.” Since he totally disregarded the question in his response, I take this as his acknowledgement that our concerns are valid.

The results of the survey seem to confirm a number of the concerns that I’ve expressed on this blog. You can find a full copy of the report at the bottom of the page here. I’d recommend reading the full environics report that’s also provided on that page as it provides a great deal more details, including specifics relating to individual departments. Neither is very long; 7 and 20 pages each, very easy reading and lots of figures.

In a nutshell, here’s the highlight reel:

90% of federal scientists feel they cannot speak to the media freely about the research they conduct.

74% feel that current communications policies for discussing research with the media are too restrictive.

50-73% are concerned that new policies around publications/data sharing/collaborative agreements will impede their ability to collaborate with colleagues internationally, in both the public and private sector and with academics. We’ve already seen some researchers balk at new data sharing agreements and walk away from collaborations as a result of these changes.

Nearly a quarter of those surveyed said they’d been asked to alter or exclude information for non-scientific reasons.

There are a number of chilling perceptions as well regarding how departmental changes are altering government policy; take that for what you want, since we don’t make the policy, we just try to provide the scientific evidence to inform it.





The empire (seeks funds to) strike back


“I find your lack of faith… disturbing.” Greg Rickford, hoping a few bucks might help him learn some Jedi mind tricks to assist with silencing government scientists. And a sweet Halloween costume.vader_choke

I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it, so I thought you should see it too.

Someone today sent me a recent article by Michael Harris on ipolitics, describing a letter that someone in the constituent offices of Minister of State for Science and Technology, Greg Rickford, sent to his party faithful. The article (behind a paywall) is here.

The letter (which I was also sent) that Harris writes about says a recent article in the Toronto star suggesting that Rickford might not be the best candidate for his current ministerial position are somehow unfounded (I have my own opinions on the matter), and seeks a fundraising campaign in order to better respond to these attacks (because Greg did such a good job responding himself to the issues of the day, apparently some money is required for assistance on this front). Here’s a copy of said letter, for your viewing pleasure:


A letter drafted by someone from the Conservative Party of Canada calling four scientists “radical ideologues” is a piece of comedy that I just couldn’t have come up with myself.

What’s not so funny is the implication of this letter- is the Minister of State for Science and Technology actually building a war chest to attack the scientific community? If so, scientists in Canada might well be worried about what it is Rickford is “quietly and diligently getting done” behind the scenes. Stay tuned…

UPDATE: October 8, 2013

“Federal science minister Greg Rickford not commenting on fundraising letter labelling some scientists ‘radical ideologues’”

Internet trolling and peer review

I’ve hit a new low- I’ve taken to trolling comments on the internet:


I’m not sure what prompted me to write it- I think because the person I replied to quoted me, and had throughout the comments provided information like they know what’s going on but clearly don’t.

I don’t imagine I’ll make a habit of it. The article that generated the comment was pretty interesting, though- some chilling statistics on publication trends from NRC (if they are right- see below). As some of the commenters said, it would also be interesting to see how that correlates with funding and staffing as well.

Others have already started looking more closely at the article- see this tweet from @thelabandfield and the conversation it links to;

It’s worth a look at some of the threads it stimulated between a few other folks, if you’re on twitter. Certainly warrants a closer look at the numbers, anyway.

Isn’t it interesting that a magazine article written about science communication ends up in a bit of post-publication peer review itself? Great to see scienctific rigour alive and well on the internet. Let’s hope it generates a more concrete assessment of these statistics, as I think an accurate accounting moving forward will be an important metric of the affects of the ongoing cuts and rule changes within government departments. One aspect worth looking into (as suggested by @thelabandfield) would be the degree to which government scientists relegate themselves to co-author status (with a first author in academics) in order to get the work out there and have someone able to talk about it. Even then, as co-authors, our supervisors are the ones signing the copyright release and reviewing final drafts accepted for publication.