The academic research environment is changing and researchers report struggling to adapt in order to be successful. Funding shortfalls are perennial, but what systemic shifts should occur to enable researchers at all career stages to be productive and successful?

Attending to the life course of researchers with the ‘research ecosystem’

In 2017, Professor David Naylor released the Investing in Canada’s Future: Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research report (hereafter referred to as the Naylor report). It represented the first major assessment of federally funded research in Canada, with an extensive and ambitious mandate:

A review of the federal system of supports for extramural research…We were expected to cover the full range of disciplines involving peer-reviewed science or inquiry, with either a basic or applied orientation. As well, our focus was to be on programs supporting knowledge generation, as contrasted with programs oriented primarily to fostering partnerships with industry or civil society, or promoting knowledge translation, innovation, and commercialization.

Throughout the Naylor report, the terms “research ecosystem” and “lifecycle approach” are applied as a framework to analyze the current research landscape in Canada. Although some language indicated components of a research ecosystem, the very structure of the ecosystem was left undescribed. The concept of a life course however, was presented as follows:

We believe the advantages of a lifecycle approach are obvious. A healthy and sustainable research ecosystem depends on ample opportunities for new researchers to break into the system and establish themselves, avoids gaps as they transition to mid-career, and provides strong support for researchers in their peak years of output and impact. It also makes fair and balanced appraisals of proposals by senior researchers without overweighting their history or undervaluing their potential for further contributions regardless of age.

As the two authors of this article compared our career experiences and perspectives (one early career, one late career) within the context of the Naylor Report, it dawned on us that there was little literature reflecting these perspectives, and we started thinking about how the research life course could be described within research ecosystems. We will employ the concept of a research ecosystem to frame a detailed discussion regarding the life cycle of a researcher. Our goal is to stimulate debate around what sorts of resources should be provided in the research ecosystem to researchers at different stages of their lifecycle.

The researcher in the research ecosystem

The consensus in the Canadian research community is that the current research ecosystem is not in its healthiest state, and is unable to support itself. The modern scientific research environment has been characterized as hypercompetitive, with an increasing number of investigators and scientists competing for a flat or decreasing amount of available research funding. Secure research positions across the spectrum of academic disciplines are diminishing with a corresponding concern about the ability of younger researchers to commence and sustain careers. Data from grant competitions indicate that those with established track records are generally more successful than those without. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research noted in its President’s Report that persistent inequalities and inequities exist, particularly with respect to gender, age and opportunities for scientists representing disadvantaged populations (such as Indigenous populations).

It has been noted that many new investigators are dependent upon senior scientists for sustaining their careers. Younger researchers experience prolonged stays in post-doctoral fellowships as tenure–stream and research institute scientist positions become increasingly scarce. It has been reported that only 18.6 per cent of PhDs were employed in full-time faculty positions (tenure-stream, tenured, and contract faculty), despite the majority of people entering doctoral degrees with the intention of becoming a university professor. In Ontario, senior colleagues are remaining in their faculty appointments into their 70’s; a trend thought to be partly to blame for decreasing faculty positions for early career researchers. This is mentioned in the Naylor report:
The abolition of mandatory retirement led to an increase in the number of faculty members still working full time past age 65. This situation has increased the need for a comprehensive lifecycle plan.

Many early career scientists report spending a disproportionate amount of their time pursuing funding to become self-supporting, but also report having limited access to the necessary administrative support to achieve these goals. There is significant pressure to publish and demonstrate the impact and importance of their research, even if it is in its infancy. The average age at which an investigator receives their first grant as a principle investigator is increasing.

This perilous state of affairs has led many young researchers to consider abandoning their research careers. A literature called “quit lit” has emerged, documenting the not-so-happy experiences of young researchers. In one report, when early career researchers were asked about the challenges for young scientists, one replied: “old scientists.” Given the increasingly competitive nature of the research ecosystem, notions of a sustainable research ecosystem will need to grapple with how these resources can be managed.

It should be noted that mid- and late-career researchers report many of the same concerns. Salary support is difficult to obtain for those who have not secured tenure. The soft money economy that sustains research is reliant on continuous funding, and disruptions caused by failing to get continuous funding imperils research programs that have not quite reached maturity.

Most research institutions cannot fully bridge-fund investigators while waiting for success in the next funding cycle, which may cause invaluable research team members to seek employment elsewhere. Senior investigators undergo periodic review with an expectation that they will meet performance metrics related to publications, citations, and the dollar values of grants. In university settings, merit pay is often tied to similar expectations of research performance. These standards are rarely tailored to the achievements and career stage of senior investigators, rather they are a one size fits all performance evaluation structure.

So we are faced with a seemingly unhealthy research ecosystem increasingly unable to provide and sustain the resource requirements for researchers and institutions to flourish. It should be emphasized, however, that a research environment need not be considered a structure or process that is shaped and formed by external forces. The current situation reflects choices (or adaptations), for the most part, that are made within the research ecosystem. The current metrics used to evaluate researchers’ productivity reflects the values of the research community. If incentives are structured to foster competition and value certain processes and outputs over others, then the consequences will be clear and stark: predators will eat the prey, disequilibrium will occur, and the system will collapse.

Many new researchers are dependent on senior researchers for sustaining their career (Pixabay)

Adopting a lifecycle perspective to researchers

For the purposes of this discussion, we are framing a life course as the set of socially determined characteristic stages an individual would pass through during their research career, capturing inception (candidacy) through to their end stage (retirement). If moving toward a life course perspective is seen as one strategy to adjust the research ecosystem, we must address the questions: What is the current state? What changes would be required? How should we re-conceive the idea of a research career?

In our current research system, salary support usually comes from institutions such as universities and research institutes. Researchers are encouraged to seek prestigious external funding for salary support, including new investigator awards and research chairs. There are also provincially supported career research awards and, in some instances, chairs associated with philanthropy. These awards typically reduce funding pressure on institutions and bring associated overhead costs with them. Researchers are expected to apply for external funding to support their research operating costs; support the training of undergraduate and graduate students as well as post-doctoral fellows. Continued success in competitive funding cycles is required for research programs to grow and for careers to flourish.

Often, as researchers achieve success and a modicum of reputation, they will be asked to be co-applicants on grants of colleagues and researchers they have trained. There is no cap or ceiling on how much funding any one researcher can hold at any given time in their career or over their career. This open–ended policy is intended to reflect the meritocratic spirit of research; the most successful have demonstrated their ability to acquire funding and produce high–quality results, and use these results to acquire ongoing funding. They have adapted well to the research ecosystem and its processes.

This may be true, and the general manner in which success breeds success would not be problematic, if there were corresponding increases in funding that would permit successful research programs to continue as newer researchers were establishing their careers, or entering the ‘ecosystem.’ However, funding constraints make this problematic. Increasingly, the playing field is tilted in the direction of those with historical success. Senior investigators, well-schooled in the practice of grant writing, have a distinct competitive edge.

There are good arguments for apportioning resources to researchers according to which stage they are at in the research lifecycle. In the Naylor Report:

One approach, among others, would be to aim for higher success rates for [early career researcher]s, and gradually shift that balance through career stages with lower success rates for established researchers who will often be pursuing much larger grants that bear closer scrutiny.

To enact the proposed shift in resource allocation, several issues would have to be addressed. There is often a paradox in grant funding acquisition during the earliest stages of a research career. For most researchers, it is quite clear that they will not get funded if they do not have a track record; but track records are predicated on having resources, such as funding, to begin with.

We agree that protecting pools of resources for early career researchers would serve that purpose, as asking for the same productivity and outputs from a newly graduated PhD as from a very senior professor simply makes no sense. Placing them in research competitions for the same funds makes even less sense. It may be better to allocate funds in protected envelopes for various career stages and set career limits for investigators as suggested by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).

However, care must be taken not to discriminate against senior researchers. No doubt many continue to be driven by curiosity and have thriving and viable research programs. Would it not therefore harm the scientific process to curtail their activity? There are many good reasons to continue to support accomplished scientists, but perhaps further exploration of the motivations for continued grant writing and research activities is required? Are the most senior colleagues applying because they want to conduct research, or because the ecosystem has set the conditions and expectations of research outputs, regardless of career stage?

If it is the latter, perhaps it would be worth exploring the possibility of transforming expectations of senior researchers in the latter part of their careers to better match their career stage and goals.

Researchers as creators and recipients of ecosystem resources

In the research ecosystem models that have been articulated, and to be discussed in a future paper, the researcher is mostly seen as a consumer of services (funds, infrastructure etc.) rather than a contributor to the ecosystem (service provider). One way of adapting lifecycle thinking into research ecosystems is to see researchers as both providers and consumers of ecosystem services and resources. The ways in which researchers provide services has been under-appreciated; existing models of research ecosystems have vastly underplayed an important dimension of functioning research systems – service to the ecosystem.

Thinking from a lifecycle approach, it may be wise to structure the ecosystem to protect younger faculty from over-engaging in service commitments such as committee membership, teaching, reviewing grants and manuscripts, while increasing incentives for senior faculty to be engaged and taking leadership in these roles. Given the noted competition between early-, mid-, and late-career applicants for research dollars, a corresponding effect in mentorship and collaboration follows. It is not in the interests of researchers in a hypercompetitive environment to dedicate their time and resources to activities that are not maximizing their chances of success according to the standards by which they are judged by their institutions and peers.

If the provisions of such research services were regarded on par with research outputs, would this sufficiently incentivize senior researchers to spend more of their time and energy in ensuring the sustainability of the research ecosystem itself? We posit that if made part of the way we see research ecosystems function as a whole, service and mentorship would naturally be regarded as appropriate activities for the senior researcher to perform and devote an increased amount of time.

We suggest, however, that both financial and other incentives would be required to entice senior scientists into these mentorship and service roles. The NIH attempted to address this issue by suggesting limits on grant funding held by investigators and by floating the idea of ‘emeritus grants’ – essentially providing grants for senior colleagues to retire from research competitions, in the hopes of increasing the amount of grant money available to early career scientists. Neither of these plans have moved into implementation, as they were met with unanimous hostility, but signal that leadership is querying new approaches.

The life cycle of a researcher could be, and should be, discussed and debated extensively, but it strikes us that the central issue comes down to performance metrics that are representative of norms and values. Given our metrics-driven competitive ecosystem, if we had meaningful metrics that tracked research ecosystem service contributions – such as mentoring and supervising graduate students, providing peer review for grants, serving on required committees, providing more and higher quality peer reviews for journals – and considered these contributions to be equal to the contributions that we currently value and incentivize – such as publications, citations, and grant dollars – we may have the elements of a sustainable research ecosystem.

So what we are arguing is that the highest value arising from a research ecosystem is not simply the production of a “knowledge product.” The modern scientific world is a complex ecosystem that requires service in a variety of different processes, each of which requires support and nourishment. Overvaluing particular facets of it has led to a hyper competitive environment with serious perverse incentives for behaviors that are not in the collective good. If we understand research as a broadly social enterprise, being the most truth aspiring activity that humanity can be engaged in, then reconsidering all elements of the research ecosystem and directing resources to support and nourish it may well be in order.

Michelle L.A. Nelson is at the Collaboratory for Research and Innovation at the Lunefeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute; The Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, and the Division of Clinical Public Health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto.

Ross Upshur is at the Division of Clinical Public Health, Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto and the Bridgepoint Collaboratory for Research and Innovation at the Lunefeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute. He would like to acknowledge the Brocher Foundation for support in incubating the ideas in this paper.