Canada extends search for Winnipeg National Microbiology Lab director

Dr. Frank Plummer Plummer has been battling health problems and left his position as head of the National Microbiology Lab at the end of March. John Woods / The Canadian Press

TORONTO – The federal government has made some changes to its eyebrow-raising job posting for the position of head of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory.

The revised posting drops the requirement that the lab director be bilingual and is extending the period of time candidates have to apply, Dr. Gregory Taylor, the acting head of the Public Health Agency of Canada, said Thursday.

He also said the agency would appoint a small advisory committee to help it find the right candidate and would seek advice from former director Dr. Frank Plummer. The members of the committee haven’t yet been selected, he said, but he insisted they would be “top-flight individuals.”

RELATED: Search for new Winnipeg microbiology lab leader worries scientists

The original posting, which was quietly placed on a federal government jobs website, offered a scant three weeks for would-be candidates to submit their applications. Now the period has been extended to May 28 from May 14, Taylor said.

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The government is seeking a replacement for Plummer, who had been the Winnipeg lab’s scientific director since 2000. Plummer has been battling health problems over the past year; he finished his final term in the job at the end of March.

His departure was not announced and was not widely known. But a number of scientific and public health leaders who were aware of the vacancy have been very concerned about the way the government is going about filling the job and the job posting itself.

The three-week window to apply, the lack of attention drawn to the opening, and the salary scale offered — starting at $132,600 — suggested to a number of people that the federal government might be seeking a bureaucrat, not a top-notch scientist, to replace Plummer, who is a world-renowned HIV researcher.

The posting did not stipulate that candidates must be experienced scientists, nor did it ask that they have published scientific papers. It calls for experience managing the delivery of health-related programs, providing strategic scientific advice and representing an organization nationally and internationally.

The wording of the posting even suggests someone could be named to the job without having either a medical degree or a PhD. The successful candidate will receive one of two classifications, depending on whether he or she has a medical degree. Applicants who don’t have a medical degree are required to have a degree in a health-related field, but there is no requirement that it be a doctorate. The posting says a PhD would be a benefit.

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Taylor said that the rules governing the posting of jobs didn’t allow the public health agency to stipulate that a PhD would be required for anyone who does not have a medical degree. But he suggested that even though it isn’t listed as a mandatory requirement, it really is.

“Certainly our intent is to have a PhD or an MD and ideally we would have a person with both. An MD-PhD would be the ideal candidate,” Taylor said.

NDP health critic Libby Davies suggested the changes to the job posting reflected a damage-control effort on the part of the government.

“Why does it have to take so much public pressure and media exposure for the Conservative government to act?” she asked in an email. “The implication is that if it hadn’t become public, the posting would have remained as it was.

“We need to see a genuine process for important postings like this — not damage control at the last minute.”

Plummer has served as both head of the national lab and Canada’s chief scientific officer. Taylor acknowledged it isn’t clear that those titles will remain coupled when his replacement is named.

“We’ll see. We may end up pulling those apart. Part of it depends on the candidate,” he said.

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“We’d like to find the same kind of outstanding individual who could do both, but it may not be.”

Taylor said the search period will be extended further if it needs to be. He also said the search might “go international” if that’s what is needed to find an excellent person to fill the job. Currently the job is open to Canadians, either in Canada or living abroad.

“We’re committed to finding the right individual who knows the science and can provide that scientific leadership.”

Some observers have expressed concerns that the agency will have a hard time finding serious candidates, given the salary offer. The range listed in the posting runs from $132,600 to $231,900 for running the country’s premier lab, a facility in which 500 scientists work.

Lesser jobs in provincial health organizations generally pay substantially more, several concerned people have noted.

“At that level it would not be competitive in trying to recruit an internationally recognized scientist in this area. And it certainly wouldn’t entice people to move,” said Dr. Arnold Naimark, a former University of Manitoba president who was a consultant to the search committee that identified Plummer when he got the job.

Taylor acknowledge there are salary constraints in the federal civil service, but said he expects that the successful candidate will come in at the top end of the scale.


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