NSERC Discovery Grants: cut back again

The results of this year’s NSERC Discovery Grants competition have just been announced to the applicants and their institutions. They are not publicly available yet, and I’m writing this post based on very limited information, but what we know so far is quite discouraging. Although the earlier NSERC press release said that the Discovery Grants program would not get cut, the devil is as always in the details. The grand total for the two Mathematics GSCs for this year is 2.28M, down from 2.48M last year and 2.62M two years ago. (This is according to a letter from the mathematics “liaison committee” that was circulated last week to the math community. The figures are not yet available on the NSERC web site, as far as I know.) The success rate is also significantly lower: 64%, down from 77% last year.

This is a major disappointment. The budget was already stretched way too thin – there was absolutely no room left for further cuts. That sucking sound you hear? That’s Canada’s “brain gain” of the last decade going down the drain.

More on that once the details become clear. In the meantime, there’s something else that I’d like to point out.

The NSERC grants to the three mathematics institutes – Fields, CRM, and PIMS – were increased in 2007 to 1.2M, 1.2M, and 1.1M per year, respectively, and BIRS is getting an additional 0.57M per year. That adds up to over 4M per year. And that’s just the federal funding. The institutes receive very substantial additional support from the provincial governments. The Fields Institute did particularly well in the last competition: its Ontario grant has been doubled, from 1M to 2M per year, and deservedly so.

I want to make it very clear: I’m absolutely not suggesting that institutes should get cut. I’m sure that they each made their cases for the level of funding that they are getting. Instead, my point is that this gives some perspective on how woefully inadequate our Discovery Grants have become, compared to the increases in funding for those disciplines and units that had reasonable lobbying power and political clout. The Discovery Grant budget in mathematics has been more or less the same for many years. Meanwhile, there are many more research-active mathematicians in Canada now than, say, 10 or 15 years ago, a good number of them at the top of their discipline. Operating costs do increase over time. The salaries of our postdocs and graduate students should be adjusted for the increased cost of housing and living. The program is overdue for a big raise, not a cut.

I also want to make it clear that the institute funding does not compensate for insufficient Discovery Grant funding. The institutes and the Discovery Grants serve two different purposes. I have already written about it in this post, so I’ll keep it short here. Discovery Grants support our ongoing work in the long term. They’re not always glamorous, perhaps, but they’re absolutely essential in keeping our research programs alive and up to the level. Institutes support short periods of focused activities in selected areas. That’s not our main mode of operation. It’s a great way to bring researchers together and push their work to a new level – but what’s the point if there is no sustained support for them to continue in the new directions?

Here’s an example from my personal experience. In Spring 2008, I chaired a thematic program at the Fields Institute in Toronto. I can’t thank Fields enough for supporting the many participants, from Fields medalists to beginning graduate students, and creating a fantastic environment for them to work together. But here’s the thing. The program was successful because it could draw on the combined knowledge base, experience and dedication of its participants. These things don’t come from nowhere. They’re built over many years of sustained work. Institutes don’t support that – individual grants do. Take it away, and institute programs will become mere social gatherings, because nobody will have much to bring to the table.

In my own case, there are two research projects that I started at Fields, with two different collaborators. It’s not just that I started thinking about them while sitting in my Fields office – in both cases we benefited a whole lot from having an opportunity to discuss the subject matter with other Fields visitors. The first project, or at least one part of it, was finished in January this year, more than 6 months after the program had ended. We will likely continue to work in that direction. As for the second project – the larger of the two – it took almost a year before we had anything to show for our efforts. We’re writing it up now and hopefully there will be a paper by, I don’t know, late May or early June.

The point is: I found new research directions at the program, but wouldn’t have been able to pursue them to completion without the continued Discovery Grant support. Furthermore, I wouldn’t have been able to even get started on them without the experience I’d gained over the years in the past – also supported by Discovery Grants.

Then there is the question of who gets the money and how they may use it.

The Discovery Grant competition is based on three criteria: the excellence of the researcher, the merit of the proposal, and the contributions to the training of junior personnel (students and postdoctoral fellows). The review system at NSERC is in the middle of an overhaul and initial reports indicate that there are wrinkles to be smoothed out – more on that later – but at least the goal is clear enough.

On the other hand, institutes make their funding decisions based on any number of other factors, such as the availability of matching funds, contractual obligations to sponsors and partner institutions, political considerations, and the program guidelines determined by the institute’s modes of operation. That’s their nature. For example, PIMS Collaborative Research Groups must involve a fairly large group of researchers distributed over several PIMS partner universities, with at least two group leaders based at different institutions. This puts significant restrictions on who can even think of applying and has an impact on the directions that the group can take – for instance, the leadership of the group is determined to a large extent by institutional affiliation and the political landscape.

I’m sure that there’s a place for that, but, generally, evaluating a scientific proposal based on the outcome of departmental hiring in recent years is a lot like judging a singer based on her looks. Sometimes there’s a correlation, even if the direction of the implication isn’t clear. Other times, mistakes can be made. That’s why it’s important to have a base system of research funding where there’s absolutely no politics involved and funding decisions depend on scientific merit alone.

Institutes can’t replace Discovery Grants, and neither can Discovery Grants replace the institutes. It’s a combination of the two, in the right proportion, that works best. The Discovery Grants have not kept pace with other programs and should be brought up to a more reasonable level.

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6 Comments

Filed under mathematics: research, research funding

6 responses to “NSERC Discovery Grants: cut back again

  1. I strongly agree that Discovery Grants should be adequately funded, and what you say about the aggregate numbers is absolutely true. However, two new faculty members in my department (one evaluated by GSC 330A, computer science; the other in controls) got huge Discovery Grants (compared to mine, evaluated last year), so I think that the other changes to the evaluation system sound positive.

  2. I can’t really have an informed opinion on the new evaluation system without seeing more data on how it worked this year. If, as you said earlier, the default under the old system was to maintain previous grant levels for returning applicants, then I’m not going to defend that. On the other hand, I am wary of a system where the actual funding decisions are made by non-scientists based on a simple linear ranking of the candidates submitted by the committee. For instance, one problem that I have heard of is that the ranking does not distinguish between a poor case for funding in general and a good case for funding at a lower level (e.g. faculty at smaller colleges). I would feel much better about it if the priority ranking were independent of the recommended funding level.

    The main problem is, of course, that there isn’t enough money in the system. That amount needs to be increased, preferably by a factor of two, not just by a few percentage points.

  3. +1

    I’m sure there are ways to perfect the system and, in some sense, one should fix the big lack of money, but it’s at least good to fix the small problems that already exist.

    There was an article in the Globe and Mail about a Universite de Montreal life sciences researcher decamping to Florida and more money. I hope that helps.

  4. Here’s the link to the Globe and Mail story, in case people are interested.

    I can’t wait for that photo op with Goodyear.

  5. mike

    The unfortunate fact is certain people with poor research profiles have penetrated NSERC GSC’s. They cannot publish even a single paper but are put in a position to decide funding for others! Indeed, a third world country approach. Let’s say good bye to research in Canada!

  6. I don’t know about that.

    If you’re saying that reviewers aren’t always fair, or that their own research isn’t always as good as that of the applicants, then, well, duh. That’s true of every single funding agency that I know of. That’s also why it’s important to have a sound system in place – for example, it should not be possible for an individual committee member to skew the balance. NSERC has guidelines on the selection of committee members and I think that they’re sound. So are NSERC’s policies on peer review.

    If you’re suggesting that weak researchers have more or less hijacked NSERC at the GSC level, then I can’t agree with that. It’s certainly not true in mathematics.