NSERC Discovery Grants, on a tight budget

Last Spring, the NSERC Discovery Grants applicants received the following letter from NSERC (I quote from mine):

The 2007-08 Discovery Grants program budget was under great pressure despite the injection of close to 6 million of new funds. This situation was due to the substantial increase in the number of applications which could not be matched by a corresponding growth in the program’s budget. Therefore, the budget was insufficient to meet the needs of the large number of new and returning applicants. For the Pure and Applied Mathematics “A” Grant Selection Committee 336, this resulted in the budget awarded to renewal applicants being approximately 16% lower than the amount previously held by that group of researchers. This made the competition more difficult than in previous years and the resulting recommendations are reflective of this extra pressure.

NSERC publishes the results of each year’s Discovery Grant competition on its web site. Most mathematicians apply to one of the two “pure and applied mathematics” GSCs: 336 and 337. The difference between the two is not entirely well defined: GSC 337 is somewhat more applied, but the usual rationale for who applies where is a history of researchers in a given area applying to one committee or the other. (I apply to GSC 336.) This year’s results were not yet available publicly as of this writing, but here are the results for the previous 2 years, in PDF format:

The average size of a GSC 336 grant was about 17K in both years. In 2006, there were 20 grants between 5 and 9K (5K was the lowest amount awarded), 36 grants between 10 and 19K, 13 between 20 and 32K, and 6 grants above 32K, valued at 56K, 50K, 40K, 40K, 40K, and 38K (a total of 75 awards). In 2007, there were 3 grants valued at 8K, 53 grants between 10 and 19K, 20 between 20 and 32K, and 3 larger grants: 57K, 39K, 35K. The total number of awards was 79.

GSC 337 awarded 65 grants in 2006 and 61 in 2007. In 2006, there were 19 grants between 5 and 9K, 29 grants betwen 10 and 19K, 12 grants between 20K and 34K, and 5 grants above that level: 45K, 44K, 43K, 40K, 40K. The corresponding numbers for 2007 are 2, 40, 14, and 5 outliers: 57K, 51K, 42K, 38K, 36K. The average size of an award increased from about 16K in 2006 to 19K in 2007. (In addition to individual research grants, both GSCs have also awarded a few small equipment grants. I have not included these in the statistics.)

On the surface, all looks well. The total amount of money granted by each GSC was somewhat higher in 2007 than in 2006; the 336 average grant size remained the same, the 337 average grant size increased by 20%. Why complain?

To see where the cuts are, one has to compare the 2007 grants to those previously held by the same researchers. Typically, as a researcher progresses through career stages and her research program becomes a bigger operation, with more students, postdocs and collaborators involved, her research grant increases accordingly. In 2007, the opposite happened to many of us.

In addition to several cases that I was already familiar with, I picked what I thought would be a representative sample of the GSC 336 list, checked their 2007 amounts, then looked up their previous grants using the NSERC award search engine. There were a few increases, but many more researchers have had their grants cut by anywhere from 10 to 30%. We’re not talking here about a few individuals who may be burnt out or slowing down. We’re talking about a large group of established researchers in their prime years, including recent winners of major research awards. Nor were the renewal applicants the only ones who got hit. Some of the first-time applicants, both junior and senior, received significantly lower levels of funding than they would have gotten in other years.

A comment on the smaller grants. With very few exceptions, both GSC 336 and 337 implemented a minimum grant size of 10K. Given that over 25% of the grants awarded in 2006 were in the 5-9K range, does that mean that the researchers with small grants had their funding increased? Actually, no. If you were coming up for renewal in 2007, your previous grant would have been awarded in 2002 or 2003. I used the NSERC search engine to generate a list of all awards between 5 and 9K made by GSC 336 in those years, then checked that against the 2007 results. Of the 31 researchers on the list, only one had a grant renewed in 2007: 10K, up from 9K. The rest may have retired, left the profession, left the country, or have not had their grants renewed.

Basically, the pool of applicants was larger and stronger than in previous years. Some of this can be explained by demographic considerations: a large wave of retirements in recent years freed up many academic positions, and the new hires were in many cases stronger than the people they replaced. There have also been targeted initiatives, such as the Canada Research Chairs program, designed to boost Canadian science and technology by bringing in outstanding researchers. All of which is great and very much appreciated by the community, but once we have all these fantastic researchers here, we should support them so that they could do what they were hired for. Makes sense, no?

Now, I understand that when there’s not enough money for everyone, something somewhere has to be cut. That said, I don’t think that individual researchers in mathematics have had the same kind of advocacy that other disciplines and interest groups have benefitted from.

In 2005/06, NSERC was developing a new framework for continued funding of the mathematics institutes, and there was a danger that an inappropriately set up competition could lead to a loss of their funding. The institutes mounted a huge national campaign to defend and promote their case. A national-level committee, including the institute directors, NSERC and CMS officials, and other community representatives, was charged with negotiating the new framework for institutes. We’ve had electronic surveys, mass mailings to various mailing lists including all NSERC grantees and the entire CMS membership, promotional meetings on various levels.

The result? The institutes, now funded through the Major Resources Support program, have all had their funding increased: Fields and CRM by 20%, and PIMS by 10%. (Fields and CRM are each receiving 1.2M per year from NSERC, which is slightly higher than the GSC 337 budget for 2007 and about 150K less than the GSC 336 budget. PIMS is receiving 1.1M per year.)

There was no similar campaign to promote and defend individual research grants. The cuts were announced very quietly and presented as a fait accompli: see the front page editorial in this issue of the CMS notices. CMS had offered very strong support to the institutes in their campaign. Its highest-level representatives were on the national-level committee just mentioned and attended the NSERC site visits to the institutes. That case, of course, was different in that it involved a reorganization of major existing funding mechanisms and creation of a new one. The cuts to individual grants were much simpler: the framework did not change, we just got less money. However, NSERC has also commissioned a review of the GSC structure, and structural changes may be on their way. I would hope that mathematicians will be engaged in that process.

Individual grants aren’t necessarily very sexy. You can’t trumpet them as a bold new initiative. They don’t always attract attention or generate a lot of matching funds. We nonetheless need them to be able to do our daily work. The recent report of the International Review Committee (I wrote about it in an earlier post) makes the case that the program works very well and should remain high on the NSERC list of priorities.

In a follow-up post (probably the last one in this particular series), I will talk about how we use and budget our grant money, how we can supplement it from other sources, and whether or not those other programs can compensate for the cuts to individual grants.

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