NSERC Discovery Grants: various updates

The results of the 2008 Discovery Grants competition are now available: GSC 336, GSC 337. This is clearly an improvement over last year’s situation, when the budget for the mathematics GSCs was cut quite severely. I don’t have the time to do detailed statistics as I did in an earlier post on the subject, but for a quick comparison, let’s look at the top tier of GSC 336 grants. In 2007, the three highest awarded amounts were 57K, 39K and 35K; all other grants were valued at 32K or less. In 2008, the top three grants are 52K, 48K, 44K, and five more are valued at 42K each. No, it does not mean that all the best researchers applied this year. It means that last year there was much less money available, as I’m hearing from sources close to the bean counter.

I would hope that the 2007 GSC budget was a one-time screw-up and that the GSC budget will stay around the 2008 level in the future. There are, however, a couple of additional considerations that unfortunately have to be brought up.

First, in this less than perfect world, the quality of our research is often judged by the size of our grants. It takes time and expertise to read the actual papers or to make merit-based comparisons between people working in different fields. You only need a few seconds, though, to look up someone’s most recent Discovery Grant. If Professor A gets 30K per year and Professor B gets 40K, then B must be better than A, right? Well, that’s one possibility, but another is that A got his grant in 2007 and B in 2008. But, honestly, how many people beyond those affected directly will even be aware of the cuts? Or remember in which year that happened? The bias is there and can affect A’s ability (at least compared to his counterpart B) to attract further funding, recruit graduate students and postdocs, win awards, and so on.

Second, and related: upon renewal, most researchers receive grants within 10% of their previous amount. The report of the Discovery Grants International Review Committee has detailed statistics on that and suggests that the researcher’s funding history influences the judgement of the GSC members. To continue with the above example – this is how A’s temporary problem can become permanent.

To address the inertia problem (which seems to be quite widespread and by no means limited to situations such as the one just described), the committee suggests a change to the NSERC procedures. Instead of ranking proposals and allocating the funds at the same time, as is currently done, GSCs should first rank the proposals based on merit alone, without any reference to current or new level of funding, and only allocate the funds after the ranking process is complete.

As it happens, a similar recommendation was made independently by the Grants Selection Committee structure review committee. Their report is now posted on the NSERC web page – you’ll find it if you follow the link. NSERC is currently working on implementing the suggestions of both committees. At the NSERC information session at the Second Canada-France Congress in Montreal about a month ago, we were given a rough sketch of how NSERC proposes to do this.

I have not yet had the time to read the report in detail, or to think much about the subject, so I’ll come back to it later when I have something intelligent to say. As for the inertia problem, I’m not convinced that the above suggestion will resolve it completely. The GSC members will still be able to look up people’s previous grants and make judgements based on that. People are human, you know. Then again, I’ll be interested to read the committee’s arguments when I have the time.


Filed under academic politics, research funding

3 responses to “NSERC Discovery Grants: various updates

  1. I think that the inertia problem currently is even worse than you write: I understand that the grant selection committee will use your previous grant as a default number on which they base your new grant (i.e. inertia is structurally built into the system). Our Dean sounded pretty confident, though, that this would change, even though this change is only currently a recommendation.

    It’s hard to get a perfect system, but the proposed changes seem to be moving in the right direction, at least.

    (And, yes, I do see that the discovery grant size being used as a proxy for quality.)

  2. plam – I’ve heard of current amounts being used as the default, but didn’t know that this was official NSERC policy. Is that what you’re saying? I can see some legitimate uses for it, for instance estimating how much money each GSC will need next year. But, yeah.

    The change is not just a recommendation, though. NSERC is developing a new organizational structure and may well implement it as soon as this coming year. Roughly, there will be fewer GSCs, but each one will be divided into subpanels. The new GSCs will rate proposals and place them in tiers according to several criteria. A separate committee will then allocate the money based on those ratings.

    The test, of course, is how this will work in practice…

  3. I’ve been told that current-amount-as-default is official NSERC policy. I couldn’t find it written down anywhere. I was just rereading ‘Review of Discovery Grant Applications’ at

    Click to access Sect6_e.pdf

    which alludes to this policy without putting it in stone. (p27: Guidelines for Reduced Funding Applications).

    I’ve heard about the new GSC structure. It sounds good, and we’ll see how it works in practice, although not on me personally for a while, since I have a 5-year grant.