NSERC budget cuts

Updated below.

And now, to follow up on the last post, here’s the rundown on the program changes at NSERC due to the federal budget cuts. The NSERC budget cuts will be staggered over three years: a cut (or a reallocation) of $11.2 million in 2009-10, $23.3 million in 2010-11, and $34.7 million in subsequent years.

No researcher is going to be happy about this situation and I want to make it very clear that I do not see the cuts as justified or reasonable. That said, I think that NSERC has made the right decisions once faced with these cuts, as least as far as I can tell from the initial announcement.

I’m particularly glad to see that the Discovery Grants program is actually getting a small increase next year. Discovery Grants are the individual grants that pay for most of our day-to-day operating expenses: collaborations, travel to conferences, research assistantships for students. On the one hand, such grants – even when small – are absolutely essential to our functioning. There’s no other program, really, that covers this type of expenses on an ongoing basis. On the other hand, the Discovery Grants budget has not kept pace with the increasing number of top level scientists working in Canada. It has already been so tight that many of us have been hurting. Any further cuts would make absolutely no sense: the savings would be minimal, but the impact on the scientific community would be tremendous and possibly irreversible. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the best researchers leave en masse, presumably moving to the U.S. where substantial increases in research funding have been promised.

Here, then, is what gets cut:

  • CRYSTAL (Centres for Research in Youth, Science Teaching and Learning), Research Capacity Development (RCD), Special Research Opportunity (SRO) and Intellectual Property Mobilization (IPM) will be discontinued. While I’m not really familiar with any of these programs – which certainly makes it easier for me to be philosophical about their demise – my impression is that the initiatives funded through these programs should stand a reasonably good chance of finding support from other sources, including the private sector, provincial budgets, and other parts of the federal budget. Sure, it’s harder to secure such support if you don’t already have core funding from NSERC. But it’s not impossible. Contrast this to the Discovery Grants program, which really can’t be replaced by funding from any other source, and you can see why NSERC may have had good reasons to prioritize its programs the way it did.
  • The University Faculty Awards will be discontinued. This was already announced before the budget cuts.
  • Master’s level Postgraduate Scholarships will be reduced to one year (from two). This makes sense, given that the federal budget includes substantial funding for graduate scholarship as a separate item. The problem is that the new graduate scholarships will only be funded for 3 years, after which they will be phased out. What about the subsequent years? Well, let’s hope for a change in government.
  • The Major Resources Support program will “focus support for major resources which are unique on a national or international scale.” This is the program that funds, among other things, the mathematics institutes. I’m not quite sure what exactly NSERC is saying here. I’m guessing that some of the small-ticket items, or the projects further down the ranking list, will be discontinued. We’ll have to wait until the next competition is announced.

Update, April 25: Evidently, I was wrong. The Discovery Grants have been cut, at least in mathematics. This is a major disappointment. I will have more to say about it soon.

Also, I will be writing more about the graduate scholarships. The new graduate funding appears to be limited to a very small number of extremely generous 3-year scholarships. Since Master’s level scholarships have already been shortened to one year in this competition, I’d like to remind everyone reading this that most Master’s programs take 2 years. Some programs have a residency requirement. UBC Math doesn’t, but it does require 30 course credits, which works out to either 9 courses and an essay or 8 courses and a thesis. It’s not realistic to expect that students will be able to take that many courses in one year. And universities won’t be changing their degree requirements overnight, nor should they have to do that.

Author: Izabella Laba

Mathematics professor at UBC. My opinions are, obviously, my own.

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