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:  https://labandfield.wordpress.com/2015/01/16/future-of-visiting-fellowship-postdoc-program-in-doubt/

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.

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Unmuzzled Postdoc

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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.

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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

Is the government breaking the law?

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Recent articles by Margaret Munro and from the CBC have raised the possibility that restricting the communications of federal scientists could actually be illegal. I, for one, am very interested to see how that one plays out.

However, it raises an interesting issue- by shutting down federal programs like the Experimental Lakes Area, the government is actually failing to meet their contractual obligations for memorandums of understanding with a number of partners- with some pretty significant financial implications (and we all know how much Fisheries and Oceans likes their agreements with external researchers these days). Could they be sued for not meeting those obligations?

Case in point #1: the Lake Ecosystem NanoSilver experiment, or LENS, led by Chris Metcalfe and other researchers at Trent University. This is an NSERC-funded strategic grant worth over 3/4 of a million dollars, plus a bunch more in leveraged funding from (perhaps ironically) Environment Canada. As a partner on the grant, DFO’s main obligation was the staff and facility at the Experimental Lakes Area. So- what do you contribute as a research partner when you close the facility that you were providing? Isn’t that a breach of contract?

Case #2: the recently-announced 4.4 Million dollar NSERC-funded Network grant, the Canadian Network for Aquatic Ecosystem Services, which was officially announced last week. Again, DFO is featured prominently as a partner on this very significant grant, and, like the LENS project, the main contribution was the involvement of the Experimental Lakes Area. What you don’t know is that DFO has been scrambling to figure out just how they will be able to remain as partners on this initiative, given that they just shut down the place where a major component of one of the research themes was meant to take place.

Don’t forget that the US government and Smithsonian institution are still involved in ongoing monitoring from a mercury addition experiment that is in recovery phase; METAALICUS. Given that the work from this experiment is contributing to US and UN policies on mercury emissions, they might presumably have a vested interest in seeing that work follow through.

Given that DFO enters legally-binding agreements in these types of projects, it stands to reason that if they are unable to provide their commitments, they should be held legally responsible. Realistically, it takes some pretty deep pockets to sue the government, but I really wonder if this is one of the scenarios that the department “risk managed” when they decided to close this facility.

50 shades of muzzle: Part 1- Funding.

Much has been made over the past while about how we government scientists are kept under wraps from talking to regular folks via the media. The most notable (recent) cases are Kristi Miller, a government scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. However, there are more frequent (and more subtle) forms of suppression that occur on a regular basis, that in many cases prevent the science from being done in the first place. I thought it would be illustrative to outline some of them here. I’ve tried to think about where in each step of the scientific process, from an idea, to the execution of a project and ultimately, to the communication of that work at conferences, scientific journals and the media that our work suffers as a result of the bureaucratic oversight we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

As I started writing this post, it became clear this will require at least a couple of entries to get through all the issues. So we’ll start with this one on the early stages of doing government science- like everything, it all starts with money.

1. Funding, funding, funding…

Any research scientist will tell you that the rubber hits the road with a line on funding- it’s very difficult to conduct science without some kind of money coming in to support the research- graduate students need paychecks, there’s lab equipment, disposables, field work (which can be brutally expensive depending on where you go- it’s not cheap to get to Ellesmere Island)- basically everything that costs money besides perhaps the salary of the scientist doing the work.

Clearly this is not a unique hurdle for government scientists. However, there are aspects about how we get our funding that are. There is perhaps an illusion that government scientists have a “budget” with which to conduct the research the government wants us to do. Not so. The only funding I can count on every year is $1500. To be clear, one thousand, five hundred dollars. That will pay a summer student for a month, and maybe some pens and paper for the office. Heaven help me if we need to repair field or lab equipment, or buy a new rainsuit. Clearly, this annual allowance not going to answer the major research questions the department needs answering, or the work that I as a scientist am interested in conducting.

So, we are asked to apply for internal competitive funds. Often, this funding is doled out in 1-year increments, making any long-term planning extremely difficult to do. Occasionally there’s multi-year funding pots available, but they are few and far between, and in the interest of regional fairness, any internal source of money that sounds reasonable at first glance often get diluted down between multiple regions, so you might get a fraction of what you ask for. But, some funding is better than no funding.

Okay, so I’ve got my $1500, maybe some internal funding. Oh wait- my manager just took 10% of those internal funds as overhead (that’s right, we are forced to use INTERNAL research dollars for administrative costs; apparently we have a very expensive photocopier, because I buy all my own pens and paper).

No matter, let’s try and use the money I do have as leverage to get some real work done, and look to outside funding sources. This can come from a number of places; NSERC discovery grants (but only if you’re an adjunct professor at a Canadian University, which I found out from personal experience is not all that simple or straightforward- more on that in another post); multi-year strategic grants through NSERC (if you can find a university faculty member to lead it; adjunct prof’s and government scientists can’t be the principal investigator on strategic grants); there’s provincial governments, funding through other federal departments, international organizations, etc. In short, many of the same places academic scientists can turn for funding. Should be no problem for an ambitious scientist, right?

Yes, but- this begs the question- shouldn’t government science departments be supporting the work that it’s scientists do? If you want your scientists doing work that fits your “departmental mandate”, shouldn’t you give them the money to support research in those directions? Apparently not- they expect you to find the money to do research that fits their priorities.

Let’s put that issue aside for the moment- no government has unlimited funds, so maybe seeking external funding for government-mandated work is justifiable. External funding often comes directed towards specific problems or issues; it just means we need to find the money pots that are aligned with our departmental “mandates”, or aligned closely enough. Until very recently, that call was up to us (the scientists). Unfortunately, new rules about what we’re even allowed to apply for in the first place may make this game even more difficult.

To get money into the department to do our work, we sign (and enter) “memorandums of understanding” (MOUs) and “collaborative agreements” (CAs)- contracts that say what the money is for, how much we get, and for how long. The new and somewhat disturbing rules around these contracts say that we need to seek departmental approval BEFORE we even submit a proposal. That’s right- not once we find out we have actual money to support the work, but before we even apply for it. AND we need to seek approval 3-months prior to even submitting the proposal. If the work that you are even planning on applying for (or working with a collaborator on) is deemed for whatever reason not in the interests of the approving manager, it’s dead in the water. You can’t even take the step of asking for the money to do the work you want to do, or leave it up to peer-review if the proposed work is of scientific merit or provides information on a key topic of interest- if the manager doesn’t like it, then it’s back to trying to piece together your research program with your $1500.

A potentially bigger issue with the rule changes around external funding is the new rule that “Expenditures cannot be incurred before the funds are received in the region“. Translation- you can’t spend the money before you have it. This might seem reasonable, until you find out how long the signing of CAs and MOUs normally take. A common timeline looks something like this: You submit your MOU in April for the work you want to do in July, and by the time it goes from you up the chain to whomever needs to sign it (on both ends), you see the money sometime in November. This latest rule might very simply put an end to government-led arctic research as we know it. Arctic field research is expensive, and often only takes place over a very brief window in the summer when weather allows. The money to fund that work is almost never in place when it’s time to head into the field. If you can’t do the work till the money is in hand, then it won’t get done; to say that field work in the arctic would be difficult to carry out in November would be an understatement.

“But why can’t you just use the money from this year for next year’s field campaign?” you might ask. The reason is because it’s the government. Our fiscal year end is March 31st, which means whatever money for the year isn’t spent by then either needs to be returned to external funders or gets absorbed back into general revenue.

With the system that’s been in place before these rules, we’ve been able to manage to do some decent work as government scientists, thanks primarily to the existence of external funding. But with these new changes, it may be a long time coming before you hear of any real government science taking place.