The NSERC Discovery Grants program, evaluated

As some of the readers here may know, the NSERC Discovery Grants program is under review.  An international committee was struck last year to evaluate the effectiveness of the program.  The report of that committee has now been posted on the NSERC web site.

In a nutshell, the committee says: the program works just fine. There is room for a little bit of improvement (and the report makes specific suggestions in that regard), but no major overhaul is either needed or recommended. Also, the program could use more money.

The main issue specifically addressed in the report is the following. The “success rate” in the Discovery Grants competition is roughly 70% (i.e., in any given year, 70% of applicants are funded). This is much higher than, for example, the 30% success rate in the NSF individual research grant competition. Does it mean that NSERC is not applying high enough standards? Should the Discovery Grants program support instead a smaller group of the top-ranked applicants, funding them at a higher level, and cut off the “long tail”?

Here’s what it looks like from a mathematician’s perspective.

The 30% success rate in the U.S. may very well be significantly less than optimal. Researchers who get funded are very strong; however, many others are also perfectly well deserving, but won’t get funded because the numbers don’t work out. They’re not even necessarily weaker than those in the first group. Sometimes the cuts are quite arbitrary, as they must be when there’s only a fixed number of awards and a tie is not an option. Ask anyone who’s ever been on an NSF panel. The Canadian system gets mentioned at such panels now and then, usually in a wistful kind of way.

It follows that only very few researchers in the U.S. can count on a stable level of grant funding. The normal project duration is 3 years (in Canada, in most cases it’s 5 years), after which you have to reapply. Even if your research program is successful and productive, with no decline in the quality of your output, you still might get cut off next time around, just because there were many other good applicants and you didn’t make the top 30%.

Let’s look at the possible consequences if that were to happen in Canada.

In the U.S., the bulk of the individual research grants in mathematics, after the overhead is deducted, is spent on the researcher’s “summer salary”: additional personal income for the researcher, in the amount of 10-20% of his or her regular salary, provided that the researcher spends a proportion of the teaching-free summer term on research (and who doesn’t?). NSERC, on the other hand, does not allow Discovery Grants to be used for summer salaries or any other form of personal compensation for the researcher. Instead, we spend the grant money on students, postdocs and travel, typically in that order. More than half of the graduate students at UBC (I don’t know the exact numbers) are supported by faculty research grants; most of them wouldn’t have been admitted in the first place if a faculty member had not been willing and able to pay their stipends.

Now, if I’m a U.S. researcher and I get cut off, that’s unpleasant for several reasons. Having your income topped up is better than not having it topped up. There’s the indignity of losing the grant, and there’s the loss of travel money, none of which are happy events. But now imagine that you’re a Canadian graduate student with a total annual income of about 20K, 12K of which are earnings from a teaching assistantship and 8K is a research stipend from your supervisor’s grant. Let’s say that you lose that 8K stipend halfway through your Ph.D. program because your supervisor got cut off. What are you going to do? That just sucks in a whole different kind of way.

If we are to discuss cutting off the researchers with small grants, we should also look at who they are and how they spend that money. They often work at the smaller or primarily undergraduate Canadian universities. They don’t have blazing hot research careers, but they do respectable work, and – very importantly – they engage students in it. Many of them spend a lot of time working with mathematically inclined undergraduates and use most of their small grants to sponsor student research projects. Their best undergraduates go on to become some of our best graduate students – that is, if they don’t get snatched by Princeton or Berkeley first. Considering the amount of money that’s being spent on it, it’s one of the best investments that NSERC can make.

Apart from the financial considerations, cutting off the small-grant researchers from the Discovery Grant program would send them the message that their work is not all that valuable. This would run contrary to the NSERC’s stated emphasis on training “highly qualified personnel”, given that the researchers in question can work with students in ways that we at large universities often can’t. Nor would it be the decent thing to do. It’s not something that I would want to happen.

I was planning to conclude by comparing the Discovery Grant program to other NSERC grant programs, but it’s getting late and I do have work to do, so I will have to save that for a follow-up post – hopefully, coming up soon.

Comments Off on The NSERC Discovery Grants program, evaluated

Filed under academic politics, research funding

Comments are closed.