Is the government letting the Visiting Fellow program lapse? UPDATE- no, but reviewing it?

[Scroll down for update, 16 Jan 2014]

I recently received a shocking and disturbing e-mail from someone who came across this site. The gist of the e-mail is that this person was going through the Visiting Fellowship application process with NSERC to work in a government lab, but was recently informed by NSERC that:

“…the program has been put on hold until further notice. I have been told by NSERC that the Memorandum of Understanding between NSERC and the government expires at the end of January 2015 and if it’s not renewed, the program will not continue.”

This is the first I’ve heard of this, and a disturbing development if true. I had a VF working with me up until I left the government last year, and there was no indication during that experience that this was coming down the pipe.

Some background for those of you who are asking “What’s a Visiting Fellow”? A Visiting Fellow is a means of government labs hiring people at the Postdoctoral level to conduct research in a government setting. On the government side, it’s a fantastic program, because it attracts strong researchers who are highly motivated to publish, and can help achieve significant progress on a research program.

For the Visiting Fellow, it’s an important option for a postdoctoral position in a depressing landscape of few options. NSERC’s Postdoctoral fellowship program has returned to a success rate of around 20%, similar to what it was prior to 2011, when, due to funding cuts, only 1/2 the number of awards provided in previous years were made available. “Coming back” to 20% success rate hardly seems like it’s something to cheer about, until you look at the numbers and find that the success rate plummeted in the 2011 and 2012 competitions to 9 and 8%, respectively. [Sidebar: It’s worth noting that while the number of awards offered has grown since 2012, the increase in success rate is due largely to a fall in the number of applications- the policy since the 2013 competition is that you can make a single attempt at this award, and if you don’t get it, you can’t re-apply (previous to this you had two attempts); students now wait until they have the strongest possible application to apply, thus the drop in applications. Other postdoctoral funding opportunities can be equally competitive.]

Regardless, the point is that the Visiting Fellowship program is a pretty critical program for both the government labs that they work with and for the Fellows themselves. If the government is trying to quietly let this fade hoping no one will notice, I hope this post circulates enough to ensure that it is indeed noticed. Alternatively, it’s also entirely possible that someone just forgot to file the paperwork at the appropriate time and now the snails pace of the bureaucratic trail of approvals is taking it’s toll on the program being renewed. Either way, I am hopeful that either my colleague was misinformed, and if not, that this post might help speed up the renewal of the agreement for this vital program.

UPDATE 16 Jan 2014

Thanks to NSERC for their comment below, and context from some deeper digging by the lab and field. Their post provides the context for the current situation: not cuts, but rather a labour dispute:

Thanks to everyone for the attention to this- as indicated by Alex, the decision appears to have been poorly communicated and misunderstood by a number of the participating government departments. This is a labour dispute at the heart of the matter, for better or worse. If it leads to the demise of the VF program, it’ll be for the worse.


8 thoughts on “Is the government letting the Visiting Fellow program lapse? UPDATE- no, but reviewing it?

    • Many VFs that I know have ended up as gainfully employed contributors to society- as government scientists, as academics, you name it. There’s a chicken-and-egg argument here regarding training PhDs and available jobs at the end of their program. I don’t think that taking away good research opportunities (for both the postdocs and the government labs they work with) is the answer.

  1. Over the years, NSERC has been proud to administer the Visiting Fellowships program on behalf of government departments and agencies.
    NSERC continues to administer the program. Research budgets remain unchanged.
    NSERC and the departments that host fellows are conducting a review of the processes related to the administration of the program.
    Certain departments are considering taking over the program as it applies to them.

  2. Pingback: Future of Visiting Fellowship postdoc program in doubt | The Lab and Field

  3. Inhouse email on the topic:

    Subject: Visiting Fellows Program / Programme de visiteurs stagiaires


    I understand some questions are being raised about the status of the Visiting Fellows program. I wanted to share with you my current understanding of where we are at. I would encourage you to share this broadly with your research scientists and division managers to ensure that everyone who needs to be aware of the changing landscape is.

    As a result of a tax ruling, the National Science and Engineering Research Council has indicated its intention to change the mechanism by which monies are provided to Visiting Fellows.

    Currently, NSERC provides the brand for the program, support at the recruitment phase and the payment of the stipend to visiting fellows.

    For all those in the system at this moment, the plan is to sign an MOU with NSERC to continue these arrangements for roughly the next three years (to address potential extensions).

    For new recruits as Visiting Fellows, there will need to be a change as we understand that NSERC will no longer provide stipends directly to Visiting Fellows. ADMs and staff from science-based departments are working on a relatively urgent basis to identify a model that maintains the cachet of a NSERC Visiting Fellowship, works across departments in a relatively standard manner, and does not put unreasonable burdens on departments facing FTE or budget caps.

    The attached slide provides some of the current thinking about options. None of these are official. Views are welcome on them.


    So the key messages for staff are a) for those existing fellows, it will be business as usual, including the possibility of extensions; and b) for those planning new recruitment of VFs, we would ask for your patience as departments work out the new model which will meet the needs of both the departments and the VFs.

    Please feel free to direct any questions to me.

    • Yikes! Sorry for not getting this up sooner- for some reason I didn’t get an e-mail alert that I had comments waiting for approval. These are excellent additions to the info. that’s out there! Good to see that people are working on it internally, just wonder how much ‘patience’ will be required by either VFs or the scientists who want to hire them…

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