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Government approach to filling top national lab job worries scientists

posted May 2, 2014, 1:57 PM by SOS SaveOceanScience   [ updated May 2, 2014, 2:01 PM ]

Dr. Frank Plummer, renowned HIV researcher and former head of the National Microbiology Lab, retired in March

The Canadian Press Posted: Apr 30, 2014 9:25 AM ET Last Updated: Apr 30, 2014 10:51 AM ET

Dr. Frank Plummer quietly retired from his post as the head of the National Microbiology Laboratory in March. His position has not yet been filled, and other prominent Canadian scientists worry that Plummer may be replaced with a bureaucrat rather than a qualified researcher.

Dr. Frank Plummer quietly retired from his post as the head of the National Microbiology Laboratory in March. His position has not yet been filled, and other prominent Canadian scientists worry that Plummer may be replaced with a bureaucrat rather than a qualified researcher. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Though most people are in the dark about it, the top job at Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory is vacant. And some of the few who know are deeply concerned about the effort afoot to fill it.

While the laboratory's website still lists him as scientific director, Dr. Frank Plummer quietly ended his nearly 14-year tenure as head of the Winnipeg lab at the end of March. In equally low-key fashion, the federal government posted his position on a government jobs website, giving would-be candidates scant time to submit applications.

Some scientists and public health leaders around the country who are aware of the events are worried about the way the search for Plummer's replacement is unfolding, seeing troubling signs in the job posting itself and the way the government has advertised the position.

Frank Plummer

Dr. Francis Plummer ended his 14-year tenure as head of the National Microbiology Laboratory in March. Plummer is one of the world's top HIV researchers, and in 2005 he was awarded a Grand Challenges Grant for $8.3 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to continue his work. (The Canadian Press)

"To me all the indications are that they're not serious about finding outstanding people," says Dr. Henry Friesen, one of the scientific leaders who is concerned about what will happen to the Winnipeg lab in the post-Plummer era.

The short time frame, the lack of attention drawn to the opening, and the salary scale listed — starting at $132,600 — suggest to Friesen and others that the federal government may not be looking for a top-notch scientist to replace Plummer.

Some fear there may be more interest in selecting a bureaucrat than a scientist.

'Minimalist exposure to science'

In fact, while the posting says bilingualism is imperative, it does not explicitly state that candidates must be experienced scientists. Likewise, applicants do not appear to be required to have published scientific papers — the coin of the realm in the world of science.

Instead, it calls for experience managing the delivery of health-related programs, providing strategic scientific advice and representing an organization nationally and internationally.

The posting does not even demand a doctorate, though it says one would be a benefit. The educational requirement lists either a medical degree or "a degree from a recognized university in a health-related field." Technically that could be a bachelors or a masters level degree, notes Friesen, a former director of the Medical Research Council of Canada and a 1977 winner of a Gairdner award — known as the baby Nobels — for his discovery of the hormone prolactin.

"They're certainly offering a great deal of flexibility to allow whoever chooses to choose individuals with what I would regard as potentially a minimalist exposure to science at any depth," he says.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, interim executive medical director at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, shares the concern. "It sounds like you could be a physician or a bureaucrat," she says of the posting.

Despite the fact that the government has known for a while that Plummer's tenure would be up this spring, the job was only posted on the site on April 23, three weeks after his term expired. The posting closes three weeks later, on May 14.

Henry Friesen Manitoba

Dr. Henry Friesen was presented with a promotion within the Order of Canada in 2003. Friesen won a Gairdner Award, commonly called the 'baby Nobels,' for his discovery of the hormone prolactin. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

People familiar with the way executive head-hunting works say four weeks is generally a standard posting length. And at least one noted that the fact the posting coincides with the end of the academic year may make it tough for candidates to meet that deadline.

"They have to post it," says an executive search consultant who works extensively in the academic and scientific research field and who asked not to be named.

"But one of the ways to make sure that the good people aren't interested is to post it in a kind of obscure place, with the timelines and stuff that has anybody who is serious and who could seriously be a good candidate saying 'Uh, who wants that anymore?"'

Friesen agrees a search like this cannot be done quickly. "Good people by and large aren't looking for jobs. You've got to go out and hunt them, find them. And all of that takes time."

Another prominent scientist aware of the situation, Dr. Arnold Naimark, suggests the tight timeline might rule out the possibility that key Canadian scientific talent working abroad could be lured home for the job.

And he's not sure that's what the federal government is looking for. "It's not clear to me to what extent they see this job as requiring a scientist leader or established senior scientist in the broader community."

An international reputation

When the national laboratory was relocated to Winnipeg from Ottawa in the late 1990s, an external search committee was set up to find a scientific director with credentials befitting the state-of-the-art facility. Naimark, a former University of Manitoba president who is now director of the centre for advancement of medicine at the university, was a consultant to the search committee.

He and others say the goal at the time was to find a scientist with an international reputation, one who would put the new lab on the map and draw top-tier scientists to Winnipeg. The committee identified Winnipeg native Plummer — a world renowned HIV researcher — as that candidate.

Plummer was (and remains) on the faculty of the University of Manitoba, but he had spent most of his career up until then at the university's research project in Nairobi, Kenya. There he identified the role heterosexual sex played in fuelling Africa's AIDS epidemic and that some women — female prostitutes — who were repeatedly exposed to HIV did not become infected.

He agreed to take the lab director job on a secondment from the University of Manitoba, an arrangement worked out so that he could continue his research — which he has done. In 2005 Plummer was awarded a Grand Challenges grant for $8.3 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for his HIV research. Over the course of his career he has published more than 360 scientific papers and was recently awarded both the Prix Galien and a Killam Prize.

But at a point Plummer was told the secondment arrangement could not be continued. Plummer, who has had health problems over the past year or so, decided it was time to take on another role. He declined to be interviewed about the search for his successor.

'They're certainly offering a great deal of flexibility to allow whoever chooses to choose individuals with what I would regard as potentially a minimalist exposure to science at any depth.'- Dr. Henry Friesen, University of Manitoba professor emeritus

The press office of the Public Health Agency of Canada said Tuesday that Plummer is now senior adviser to the Agency's deputy head — another key public health job in the federal government that is currently vacant. The previous chief public health officer of Canada, Dr. David Butler Jones, stepped down last year after suffering a stroke in May 2012.

According to the website of Ottawa-based executive search firm Renaud Foster, the search for Butler-Jones' replacement is still underway.

Until Plummer's successor is named the laboratory's executive director, Steve Guercio, has assumed responsibility for day-to-day operations, Sylwia Krzyszton, an agency spokesperson, said via email. Dr. Rainer Engelhardt, an assistant deputy minister for infectious disease prevention and control, has taken on the role of chief science officer, another hat Plummer wore.

Big shoes to fill

Friesen says the fact that Butler-Jones's job hasn't yet been filled might also deter some potential candidates from seeking the scientific director's job, noting some people might be unwilling to take a job when they didn't know who their boss would be.

The salary could also be a serious deterrent to top-flight candidates, who could earn considerably more in many provincial governments.

The posting suggests the successful candidate would be assigned one of two federal job classifications, depending on whether she or he is a medical doctor.

A doctor would be classified as an MOF-05, which has a salary range of $195,599 to $231,924. But if the selected candidate isn't a physician, he or she would be an EX-03 — which is not a high level position in the bureaucracy — and be paid somewhere between $132,600 and $155,900. Medical microbiologists working for Public Health Ontario earn more than double the salary at the top end of the EX-03 scale.

"At that level it would not be competitive in trying to recruit an internationally recognized scientist in this area," says Naimark. "And it certainly wouldn't entice people to move."

But Dr. Alan Bernstein, former head of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and current president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, suggests people should reserve judgment, wait to see who is selected "and give that individual a chance to fill Frank's big shoes."

Bernstein, who had not been aware Plummer's term had expired, says the national lab flourished under Plummer, who he called a terrific leader.

Asked what is needed in Plummer's replacement, Bernstein says: "The easiest thing for me to say is 'Someone like Frank.' ... Someone who's respected for their research credentials, on the one hand, (and) who has a public health bent."