I was slightly alarmed to see this post indicating that NSERC’s Visiting Fellowship in Government Labs (VF) program had come to an end. This is (was?) a program administered by NSERC whereby postdocs were placed in Canadian federal research labs for up to 3 years. The government department (so, Environment Canada, for example) ponied up the money, and NSERC acted as the middleman.
I was a VF from 2013-2014, and had I not found work, I’d still be there. In an era when finding postdoc funding is particularly challenging in Canada, the VF program was very valuable – applicants just had to find a supervisor in government with the cash.
So when I heard about the supposed demise, I got in touch with a few of my contacts from my days in government to see what the deal was. At one department, supervisors were effectively told that the program was over without any context. But at another federal science department, there was a bit more information presented.
According to my anonymous government contacts, the whole issue began when a VF challenged their employment status. Because VFs are paid directly from NSERC, this person argued, they should be receiving benefits as well, and treated as fully fledged employees. They took their case to the Canada Revenue Agency, who arbitrates on such matters, and the CRA ruled that VFs are employees of NSERC. As result, NSERC pulled the plug.
It’s unclear right now how this affects current VFs who are part-way through their position. At present, the application, and program information are still posted on the NSERC site.
But what I think is important to note is that according to my contacts in three federal science departments, this caught everyone off guard. The researchers in these departments, and yes, even some of their managers, see the importance of the VF program, and are actively looking for solution; it’s just unclear what that solution will be.
It’s very easy to decry this as another example of the current government’s general attitude towards science, but it’s better to look at the evidence presented. The decision to stop the VF program was made by NSERC for employment/labour reasons.
The NSERC post-doctoral fellowship (PDF) program remains in place and unchanged. And for now, it’s one of a dwindling number of postdoctoral research opportunities in Canada.