Disrupting Academia: The impact of funding on Canadian research culture

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Disrupting Academia: The impact of funding on Canadian research culture

How do you go about changing the culture of an institutional system as established and deep-rooted as the university?

This question (or some variation of it) has been coming up repeatedly over the last number of weeks as we were preparing for this series. To begin, let us define culture as "the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behaviour"*. In the context of an institution, culture is the invisible foundation underlying the intellectual, social, and moral faculties of the individuals that operate within it. To certain extents, it can subtly dictate which research activities are important, valuable, and worthwhile, and which are not - making it a very important topic to address in our discussion of academic disruption.

While culture is mostly self-perpetuating when left uninterrupted, there are a few upstream factors that can influence it. Due to the potential impact of culture on productivity and values, it is crucial to identify these factors and ensure they are in alignment with the intended vision. After a number of conversations with prominent leaders from both academia and industry**, the influential factor that we would like to focus on for the current blog is funding.

If you have read the 2017 Fundamental Science Review co-authored by Dr. David Naylor and colleagues, you will notice that many of the recommendations involve funding. Without funding, ideas would remain as ideas. As distributed through the Tri-Agency, government funding remains as one of the main enablers of Canadian science. But what if the current granting methods for funding were actually hindering our ability to be innovative in our science? As long as peer-reviewed publications remain as the major currency used by academics to thrive, there is little motivation to push our findings beyond the manuscript. Changing how the funding is granted and renewed may actually make the bigger impact.

Traditional applications, in a nutshell, take into account the merit of the investigator, and the novelty and rationale of the research idea. Renewal is dependent on productivity, which is measured mostly through publication history. What if mainstream grant applications also required a mandatory strategy to apply the discoveries? To take this further, what if pragmatic resolution of the research was required for grant renewal?*** While there are knowledge translation elements in place in some applications, they still possess unspoken reputations as afterthoughts at best. Moreover, we are referring specifically to pharmacological, technological, or venture creation, or at least an immediate plan to impact education, clinical practice, or policy. Although commercialization funding programs are available to researchers on the side, the average time for published evidence to reach practice is a staggering 17 years. We can cut this down by necessitating premeditated translation strategies and stringent accountability to commercialize where possible. Specific funds from the grants could even be allocated towards hiring business development specialists and engineers to work alongside the research team on the commercialization, such that the principal investigators are not distracted from conducting good science. Can you imagine the potential improvements this could bring to our healthcare system, economy, and public opinion of science? 

Nobel laureate, Art McDonald, once said, "The relationship - science begets innovation, which returns the favour - drives human progress and underlines the importance of balance support for both." The culture of academic research in Canada has leaned too heavily on science without innovation for far too long, permitting its siloed existence. This culture has led to a weak private sector for the health sciences and a public distrust in its benefits. It is time that we restored the symbiotic relationship between scientific research and innovation, ensuring that the returns are usable by the investors within a reasonable timeline. This proposed requirement of a "pragmatic resolution" plan at the grant-writing stage will enable the full application of more primary research, catalyze innovation, and provide greater foreseeable societal and economic impact for all Canadians.

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*As defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
**Much of my research was conducted through conversations and interviews at the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies, an annual meeting attended by deans and research administrators from across Canada. 
***Admittedly, commercialization is often more relatable to biomedical researchers. However, there are still many ways that all researchers can apply their findings towards influencing education, public health, policy, communications, and others to still benefit society and the economy. My thesis in this blog is more about the immediacy, premeditation, and accountability of the application of research. 

Additional references:

  • Morris Z, Wooding S, Grant J The answer is 17 years, what is the question: understanding time lags in translational research. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 2011;104(12): 510–520.
  • Westfall J, Mold J, Fagnan L Practice-based research – “Blue Highways” on the NIH roadmap. JAMA 2007;297:403–6
  • Trochim W Translation Won't Happen Without Dissemination and Implementation: Some Measurement and Evaluation Issues. 3rd Annual Conference on the Science of Dissemination and Implementation Bethesda, MD: 2010
  • Green L, Ottoson J, García C, Hiatt R Diffusion theory and knowledge dissemination, utilization, and integration in public health. Annu Rev Public Health 2009;30:151–74
     

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Disrupting Academia: An Introduction

Disrupting Academia: An Introduction

"One of the most consistent patterns in business is the failure of leading companies to stay at the top of their industries when technologies or markets change." - Bower and Christensen, Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave.

Undeniably one of the most popular concepts today, disruptive innovation theory emerged over 20 years ago as a means to explain how small companies went about overtaking larger, established companies. We have witnessed start-ups like Netflix show up to initially meet overlooked needs, but eventually rise up to reshape the entire mainstream market. When the industry giants give in and adopt to the newcomer's approach, disruption has happened. 

To stay ahead of the curve, we have also seen the giants disrupting themselves. Large organizations like Google and IBM understand the cruciality of promoting an innovative culture in order to remain relevant in today's fast-moving environment. Past successes are important to recognize, but fixation on the past will blind us from seeing the adaptations required for success in the future. 

Interestingly, higher education boasts as one of few markets in this past century to resist large-scale disruption. It may initially seem strange to view academia under that lens, but when it comes to the "market" of scientific research, the University is without a doubt the giant in Canada. However, more and more holes are being poked through the infrastructure that has traditionally supported this age-old institution. Government funding is failing to provide for many university labs and more graduates are being pumped out without roles to fill. More importantly, discoveries are not being translated rapidly enough to create economic value, resulting in a poorly sustained cycle. The conventional focuses of academic science in Canada are reaching a point where their narrow products are failing to serve the wider audience.  Academia needs to be disrupted. 

In my upcoming blog series, Disrupting Academia, I will propose several ideas and practical strategies that can help reshape university-run scientific research to once again meet the demands of the present and future worlds. During this series, I encourage you to weigh into this topic with any brief or lengthy, constructive or critical thought that you may have. It is time that we work together to address the elephant that has been long-residing in the Ivory Tower. 

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References

  1. https://www.tonyrobbins.com/career-business/what-disruption-really-means/
  2. https://hbr.org/2015/12/what-is-disruptive-innovation
  3. https://hbr.org/1995/01/disruptive-technologies-catching-the-wave
  4. https://www.forbes.com/sites/wallaceforbes/2013/10/23/the-greatest-companies-are-willing-to-disrupt-themselves/#645bf731307e
  5. http://www.nature.com/news/many-junior-scientists-need-to-take-a-hard-look-at-their-job-prospects-1.22879

Rethinking the academia-to-industry talent supply infrastructure (part two)

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Rethinking the academia-to-industry talent supply infrastructure (part two)

Scientific graduate education must be tailored to meet the needs of the present world. 

Research-intensive graduate school has remained largely unchanged in the last several decades. Students enter an apprenticeship-style training with their supervisor and run experiments to publish papers to graduate. With the "publish-or-perish" mentality that remains rampant, students very quickly learn that they need to keep their heads down at the bench in order to survive. Despite being extremely demanding (and almost cruel on some occasions!), graduate education is still good. Students develop not only highly specialized research skills, but learn many crucial soft skills like team-work and independence, leadership, communication, and time-management*. The environment of research labs are also somewhat similar to non-academic organizations, where students must be self-motivated and goal-oriented to thrive. However, the current issue lies not so much with the training itself (while a few tweaks could be made), but with the lack of opportunities to follow. 

Yes, graduate education is purposed towards generating knowledge-pursuing academics and we know from surveys that nearly 80% of incoming students believe they are destined for that. However, with fewer than a quarter of Canadian graduates achieving the program's intended career goal of becoming tenured professors, simply due to a massive shortage in available positions, something needs to change. The original pursuits in the ivory tower must undergo some degree of pragmatization, at least for a large portion of the graduates, as the current climate does not allow for everyone to be sent off to seek knowledge alone.

Intentional channeling of graduate talent into industry is an important perspective that we discussed in the previous post, but academia needs to take a firm stand in this matter as well. The health sciences are light years behind when it comes to implementing infrastructure that readily supplies young talent into the workforce, compared to programs like business, law, or engineering. Establishing these systems would not only benefit the Canadian health science sector, but would also provide graduate students with invaluable, real-world experiences to hone skills that may be utilized in the long-run. Dr. Alan Leshner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science once said, “We need to tailor graduate education to meet the needs of students without violating what it means to be a scientist.” To ignore this giant gap in the system will inevitably force many young scientists to leave the world of science. Though they are likely to succeed in any realm, it is a huge loss for our own field when we fail to properly utilize the talented minds that we spent so much energy, time, and resources in training. 

The writing of this two-part opinion series fell serendipitously in alignment with an exciting funding announcement by the Canadian Health Minister to launch a brand new, hands-on training program for PhD graduates. The Health Systems Impact Fellowship, a $5.8 million investment made possible by collaborations between CIHR, Mitacs, and many other partners, will provide 46 PhD graduates with opportunities to apply their expertise and skills in various health organizations around the country. This financial investment is a progressive step towards addressing some serious flaws. But funding is only the first step among many required. A complex orchestration of changes in strategy, infrastructure, programming, and culture must follow suit in the coming years to keep this momentum going. 

To conclude, we have inspiring words from Dr. Adalsteinn Brown of the University of Toronto, “It’s time to rethink the way we train our PhDs. The complexity and magnitude of challenges facing our health care system require sophisticated analytic expertise on the ground, embedded directly within health policy and delivery organizations." We could not agree more. And as Industry Link, we will continue to support this movement, giving skilled graduate students a chance to stay in the Canadian health science arena and effectively contribute to the field they know best**. 

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*I am speaking mostly on behalf of thesis-based, research-intensive graduate programs. 

**Along with our Company Tours and Part-Time Internship programs, we see great promise in our Industry Link Consulting service, which was built in the same philosophical vein as Dr. Brown's statement above. Industry Link Consulting seeks to skill-match graduate student experts to perform scientific, research, and technical consulting and troubleshooting for early-stage companies. We have completed several cases to date, ranging from analytical reports on the science behind competitors' products to full commercialization plans. We asked our clients to rate us on numerous metrics: overall experience, consistency of final product with initial agreement, quality of final product, usefulness of final product, ease of setting up case with Industry Link team, ability to customize service, helpfulness of Industry Link team throughout process, and more. We were in awe that every client rated us with perfect five-out-of-five ratings on every single metric. Our consulting service and consulting reports have been described as "very professional", "well-managed", "well-written" and "delivered on time". This validates that our graduate students are both qualified and well-matched for the task. For a full description of Industry Link Consulting and offered services, please visit our website

References

  1. The Royal Society (2010) The scientific century: Securing our future prosperity.
  2. Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada (2011) Trends in higher education.
  3. Charbonneau, L. (2011) The problem with PhD training in Canada.
  4. Tamburri, R. (2010) Why universities need to prepare doctoral students for careers outside academe.
  5. Canadian Institutes of Health Research (2017) News Release: Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor announces a $5.8 Million investment in programs to give health research trainees hands-on work experience.

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Rethinking the academia-to-industry talent supply infrastructure (part one)

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Rethinking the academia-to-industry talent supply infrastructure (part one)

Good help is hard to find. 

In fact, the lack of access to the right talent and expertise is a major barrier to growth for many companies. No organization is immune, but this is a particularly daunting issue for start-ups working with tight budgets and timelines. Furthermore, science- or technology-based companies often require more than just good help - they demand individuals with very specific knowledge backgrounds and technical specialties, making the search for the ideal worker very challenging. 

When it comes to trained scientific support, there is no better place to look than within the graduate education system. We can take a hint from the big management consulting firms who have increased their efforts in recent years to recruit advanced degree-bearing individuals out of scientific graduate programs*. And they are certainly on to something, as nobody spends more hours in a week mastering specific technologies in niche areas of science than graduate students (other than maybe their supervisors, but requesting time from them is another story.) More than that, students from these thesis-intensive graduate programs are forced to perfect analytical and research skills to complete lengthy experiments, and must be self-motivated in order to finish on time. With Canadian graduate enrollment nearly tripling to 190,000 in the last thirty years - the talent pool is overflowing and just waiting to be tapped. 

The supply is clearly there, so what is the issue? After speaking with numerous start-ups, we learned that finding good permanent employees was not always within reach due to limited resources. Yet, they still needed workers to address the temporary projects and day-to-day issues that sit outside the collective skill set of their existing team. So by "access to the right talent", this also refers to finding help for short-term projects and cases. Professional consulting firms are generally the go-to problem-solvers for these (and now they are well-equipped with many PhDs!), but with fees on the upwards of $200-300 per hour per consultant, they are not realistic options for young companies. 

I believe that establishing infrastructure that enables easy, fast, affordable, and contract-based access to graduate minds is one of the keys to accelerating early-stage health science innovation. While it may seem counterintuitive to aim to create more temporary positions, reducing the risk of initial investment will be a necessary incentive to involve start-ups. I would further argue that graduate students are familiar with working under project-based conditions, and the post-doctoral fellowship career trajectory is by no means a more stable alternative. As alluded to in the previous post, we must not be discouraged by the current lack of academic jobs in Canada, but capitalize upon this time to grow the non-academic health science sector. Considering the highly promising Canadian innovation landscape, there is no better time to redirect our efforts into supporting entrepreneurship. It is our responsibility in academia to tailor the way we provide and apply graduate training, and when necessary, invest our talents into something new. 

With all this in mind, we created Industry Link Consulting - a skill-matching service that recruits health science graduate student experts to perform scientific, research, and technical consulting and troubleshooting for early-stage companies. (To be continued in part two.)

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* This includes firms like the Boston Consulting Group and PwC, who have expressed interest in individuals from STEM backgrounds to both apply their skills in business settings and also to better perform consulting work for pharmaceutical and biotech companies. 

References

  1. Ontario Biosciences Innovation Organization 
  2. Charbonneau, L. (2011) The problem with PhD training in Canada.
  3. Tamburri, R. (2010) Why universities need to prepare doctoral students for careers outside academe.

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A personal explanation for Industry Link

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A personal explanation for Industry Link

Preparing the talent of today for the industry of tomorrow is the tagline that we proudly adopted as an initiative. I founded Industry Link a little over a year and a half ago with this vision in mind, motivated by a cocktail of frustration, personal interest, and excitement at the opportunity to address a major gap in the education system. As we launch into our second year of operation, I hoped to share with you some of the more specific reasons behind why we decided to start Industry Link.

It was abundantly clear that there would not be enough academic jobs available for the outflow of advanced degree-bearing graduates. In fact, fewer than a quarter of current PhD students are predicted to end up in full-time, tenured faculty positions in Canada, forcing the majority to seek employment in other countries or non-academic industries. Numerous scientific sources are exclaiming the severity of this problem. Yet, for various reasons, enrollment continues to increase in graduate programs that were built for career landscapes that are decades out-of-date. More disconcertingly, four-out-of-five graduate students still believe they will follow an academic trajectory. From those who were more sensitive to the situation, I would catch bits of conversations about the mysterious "industry" or "dark side" that graduate students could transition into. But guidance on how to prepare oneself for this potential postgraduate undertaking (or where these industry jobs even were) remained vague. After finding myself disappointed with career seminars and workshops, I decided to find out how many of my fellow peers actually resonated with what I was going through.

One of the first affirmations for Industry Link came in the form of a survey conducted by our early team. Like myself, 89% of the students in my graduate program did not find current career services to be sufficiently helpful for industry exposure, and most were neither aware of, nor prepared for, non-academic career options in science. Interestingly, the majority of students reported that their greatest barrier to discerning these alternative aspirations was the lack of opportunity to gain first-hand experience. This was a major finding. (And also helped explain why so many graduate students find career seminars to be ironically unhelpful*.) We decided that this was the critical problem we needed to tackle. And as Industry Link, we would do it by designing and implementing newer and more relevant programming that provided the pragmatic experiences they so desired.

This endeavor demanded an immense amount of hard work, persistence, and dedication from our team (each of whom I am extremely grateful for). Alongside the generosity of partnering companies for opening their doors to us, solid guidance from a number of personal mentors, and an incredibly supportive graduate program office, I can confidently say that we are beginning to meet this need. In this past year alone, we served over a hundred graduate students on our Company Tours program to over seven companies.  Graduate students were given the chance to see the insides of real-world, health science organizations, and discuss prospects with employees from multiple different roles, all within the same day. With sign-ups sometimes exceeding the maximum capacity by 200%, the interest and excitement in our new program was evident. We further expanded our offerings to eight Part-Time Internships and facilitated the circulation of six full-time/contract job posts. Most recently, we began planning a multi-university health science careers conference and recruiting fair coming March 2018, and soft-launched Industry Link Consulting, a service that skill-matches teams of graduate students to provide scientific and technical consulting for early-stage companies.

The current paucity of academic positions should not be seen as a dead-end to higher education, but instead, as a hopeful occasion to reroute excellence into a different facet of health science. Creating the proper infrastructure to funnel these brilliant minds from academia into industry will be essential to retaining and utilizing talent that took years of schooling to nurture. And through continued equipping and connecting, we aim to cultivate and strengthen the future innovation sectors of Canada. As we begin our second year of operation, I invite you to keep watch of the different programs and events that we will offer**. Through Industry Link, we hope to inform, encourage, and empower you to take hold of these dynamic times that we live in. 

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* Much like how the description of sashimi or durian may give you an idea of what it is, you can never really know whether or not you like it until you take the actual bite. And for many graduate students who have worked almost exclusively within the walls of their university lab, which is how most Canadian research-intensive, health/life sciences graduate programs operate, that is how exotic and foreign an industry job will seem. Thus, while career seminars are great for information, career advice, and learning about the speaker’s journey, sitting and listening inside a lecture hall will only take you so far. Based on our findings, if it truly is in our interest to help students discern their paths, we have to start providing tangible experiences. Whether or not it should be in the interest of the university to do so is another matter entirely (and perhaps a subject of future discussion).

** Most updates can be found on our TwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn feeds, or website.

References:

  1. Charbonneau, L. (2011) The problem with PhD training in Canada.
  2. Tamburri, R. (2010) Why universities need to prepare doctoral students for careers outside academe.
  3. Industry Link Career Survey, 2016.

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