CANADA: Multi-million dollar postdoctoral scheme

In its annual budget this month, the Canadian government announced the creation of 140 well-paid post-doctoral fellowships, offering some acknowledgment to a group in higher education whose salaries are generally low and whose positions in their university are often nebulous.

The C$45 million (US$44 million) five-year programme was one of a series of investments in the university sector.

But teasing out how much money flows to universities is not easy, as the provinces fund university operating budgets while the central government pays the costs for research as well as transferring money to the provinces for health, education and welfare.

In 2010-11, the provinces and territories will receive $65 billion through these major transfers while last year, the federal government allocated $96 billion on all levels of education.

The budget was given modest praise by some for investments such as $222 million for a national particle physics initiative and a small increase to granting councils after huge cuts last year.

Critics, however, point to a lack of federal investment in helping provinces deal with large class sizes or assisting students cope with high tuition fees.

The post-doctoral fellowship scheme will start to hand out awards in November and will pay each recipient $70,000 a year for two years.

For Jesse Greener, President of the University of Toronto Post-doctoral Association, this represents a marked improvement on the $30,000 he sees most of his fellow researchers receive when they are being hired.

Greener says that in his chemistry laboratory, pay scales are left to the discretion of the supervisor. He says that across Canada, 75% of postdoctoral fellows earn less than $45,000 a year, less than the average salary of those working in the neighbouring US.

The government hopes the fellowships will attract international talent and keep young Canadian researchers in the country.

The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada supports that argument but with only 140 fellowships in total, the numbers are likely to be too modest to make that much difference.

In the 2007-08 academic year, 5,700 post-doctoral fellows were working in Canada and 1,500 were at Toronto alone.

"Even if every one of them went to U of T that wouldn't even be 10%," says Greener.

For Greener, the more important aspect is the boost to the status of the post-doc. "This raises the bar and offers some recognition for the work being done by post-docs."

According to Greener, the average age of a post-doc is between 30 and 35, with many starting families and trying to pay off student loans.

He says most postdoctoral fellows are conducting important research and training students. His colleagues receive very little training, with most doing research that a faculty member would otherwise be doing.

While he is happy for the recognition, the new programme will not be able to solve what he sees as the more serious issue, the many hiring freezes across the country with qualified post-docs sitting in limbo while faculty positions too often remain elusive.

The article fails to mention that the recent 2010 budget modifies the fellowship exemption such that many Canadian postdocs who were previous not paying federal tax on there fellowships now will be. This amounts to an approximate 22% cut in salary. Any benefit gained from the new fellowships is far outweighed by the increase in taxation.

David Davidson,
McGill University