Opinion: Abandoned by the System

Lab techs and other highly qualified employees are too often given short shrift by the biomedical research enterprise.

By , , and | May 18, 2015

FLICKR, NEETALPAREKHWhen starting up a laboratory, early-career researchers usually hire a lab technician or a research assistant. These “permanent” employees—i.e. non-students—are a vital part of any lab. They are often in charge of training newcomers and are responsible for specialized research platforms. With their unique expertise and experience, they are also the memory of the lab.

Early-career researchers have to deal with a great deal of stress due to the responsibilities inherent to their jobs, such as writing grants, preparing courses, supervising their labs, and attending to teaching and administrative duties. On top of this, they need to churn out research results. Highly qualified employees (HQEs), such as experienced lab techs and research assistants, are vital to this process because they serve as a bridge between the principal investigator (PI) and the lab and enable the PI to concentrate on other tasks.

Problems for these employees arise when funding is lost or their bosses retire. This can be very stressful for HQEs, who are faced with an increasingly shaky job market. What’s worse, many Canadian universities do not consider such HQEs official employees. These employees’ jobs are totally dependent on the funding of their boss and his or her ability to keep the grant money rolling in.

When HQEs have been working in the same lab for 20 to 30 years and their boss loses his or her funding or retires, they may not be able to compete with up-and-coming researchers, despite their expertise and experience. If they are lucky, these folks will find a job in another lab. Given that a growing number of researchers are losing their grants or retiring, however, an increasing number of HQEs are now facing the prospect of long-term unemployment. From our experience, the chance of an unemployed HQE finding another job is fading away like snow on a warm spring day.

Lab techs, research assistants, and other HQEs—our friends and colleagues—are disappearing from biomedical research because of a dysfunctional funding system. This is all the more tragic for HQEs who have devoted their careers to science.

One possible solution would be a transition period to help universities to relocate HQEs before they become unemployed. Why not look to successful policies in other countries such as Switzerland, where HQEs can benefit from job security regardless of what happens to the boss?

As grant-funding rates continue to fall flat, more and more HQEs will have to deal with job loss. Real solutions must be developed now to avoid losing their critical scientific expertise and creating tragic personal situations.

According to World Bank statistics, the Canadian government decreased its support for research from 2.04 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2005 to 1.73 percent in 2012. Stabilizing or increasing government investment in research is vital, especially with the fate of HQEs hanging in the balance. Many countries around the world with good economic growth—such as China—are showing the way by increasing the percentage of their GDP devoted to funding research.

Steve Charette is an associate professor of microbiology at Université Laval in Quebec City, Canada. Antony Vincent is a PhD student at Université Laval. Jean Barbeau is a professor of microbiology at Université de Montréal.

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