It’s 2 am, where is my long term strategy?

The September issue of the CMS Notices has a front page article on the long-range strategic planning exercise. We learn that the NSERC Major Resources Support program is being shut down; the mathematics institutes, which have been supported through MRS in recent years, will have to find some other funding mechanism.

Our community is thus being asked to develop a long range plan for mathematics and statistics in Canada. The plan should examine our discipline, identify scientific trends, and propose the right structure of resources to develop the mathematics and the statistics. It should not, however, deal with individual allocations. […] It has worked well for the astronomers and the physicists, so why not for us?

Because we’re neither astronomers nor physicists, perhaps?

There are of course many issues. First some scientific ones: where is our discipline going? Getting some sense of this is important for explaining what we then want to do, not in the sense of only deciding to fund, say, number theory or geometry (mathematics in its own organic way has been doing very well on its own), but in giving the right structures. For example, a question of proportion: the mainstream (80% or so) individual funding of research is complemented by collective vehicles (the Institutes, BIRS), which have had a transformative effect (think of the increase in the number of post-doctoral fellows) and which have a remarkable record of leveraging additional resources from provinces, universities, and private sources, as well as foreign granting agencies.


There are worse ways to start that discussion than pointing out that the two most important “structural” new ideas in mathematics in recent years had nothing to do with leveraging funds from provincial governments, international cooperation agreements, or with institutes for that matter. Continue reading “It’s 2 am, where is my long term strategy?”

Addendum on “priority areas”

OK, if anyone reading this disagrees with my last post, I really would be interested to know why you disagree and how you would make a case for prioritizing research areas in mathematics. Neither NSERC nor anyone else has even tried to make an argument – the decision that the “long range planning exercise” would take place was presented to us as a fait accompli, with nary a hint of a rationale. So, go for it if you wish, but please try to keep a few things in mind.

  • The case for “priority areas” is usually made in the form of testimonials from scientists whose own research areas have been prioritized, especially from those who were awarded huge grants and/or gained considerable political power as a result of the exercise. I suppose that this can be convincing enough to a politician who just needs a photo op with grateful scientists, doesn’t matter which ones. Others might find it political, partisan and divisive instead. Then again, if you’d like to fund something like this in harmonic analysis, I just might change my mind.
  • The other usual argument is that since our resources are limited, we should focus them on “areas of strength” where success is most likely. There are several problems with it, at least where it concerns mathematics. The first one is that it treats people as “resources” that can be moved at will wherever they’re needed. Sorry, but that’s not how it works. Research at its highest levels requires a much greater intellectual and emotional commitment than what is required from, say, bank accountants or other white-collar employees who are routinely moved from one task to another in the course of their work. Our commitment is to a specific research area, often to a specific set of problems that resonates with us in highly personal and idiosyncratic ways. Try telling a mystery writer, for instance, that she should switch to chick-lit because the publisher has made chick-lit a top priority. See how she responds to that. And you thought it would work with us?

    Second, this argument also assumes that Canadian mathematics is a world unto itself, isolated and self-contained, and that our success depends only on the collective strengths of the Canadian mathematical community and not on external developments. As someone who for many years had no collaborators in Canada, but many outside of it, I will have to disagree.

    Third, in practice such policies take us deep into the diminishing returns territory. A department that already has 7 faculty working in Exciting Area 1 might not need another one – it might benefit more from hiring someone in Exciting Area 2 which is currently represented by only one person. Logically, that makes sense. But if you go to the faculty meeting where the vote is taken, you only need to see the seven Area 1 faculty sitting around you to know which way the vote is going to go. “Critical mass” translates into excessive and unstoppable inertia. The smaller groups get steamrolled and the large groups lose their ability to respond to external developments.

  • Please try to use normal, plain English. The jargon of “catalysts”, “creating opportunities”, “enhancing and facilitating collaborations”, “fostering excellence” and “scientific cross-pollination” holds no interest for me. If you use this language to disguise lack of content, you might not make it past moderation.

Letter to NSERC: Canadian mathematics does not need “priority areas”

The latest NSERC newsletter informs us:

At NSERC’s request, the Canadian mathematics and statistics communities will conduct a collaborative long-range planning (LRP) exercise over the next 15-18 months. The exercise will include broad consultation, identify areas of strength and establish a unified vision of priorities and directions for mathematics and statistics research in Canada. The resulting plan will inform the Mathematics and Statistics Evaluation Group of the priorities for current and emerging areas, thereby allowing for the best use of resources to advance the work of the communities as a whole.

Key partners in this process include the Canadian Mathematical Society, the Canadian Applied and Industrial Mathematics Society and the Statistical Society of Canada, as well as the three Mathematical Institutes (the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences, the Centre de recherches mathématiques and the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences) and the Banff International Research Station.

Currently, the Mathematics and Statistics-NSERC Liaison Committee is working with the communities to establish a steering committee, which will develop Terms of Reference that reflect how the communities at large will be consulted and discuss how their input will be incorporated into the final LRP report.

My opinion is not exactly being solicited at this point, and it may well get filtered five times through the fine cloth of poll aggregators when it is formally solicited, to remove my name and any identifying details that might add weight to my story. I do, however, have enough experience with “priority areas”, and especially with falling through the cracks between them, to want to speak up now.

I also would really like NSERC to hear directly from the individual mathematicians, not just from institute directors and those in positions of power. Institutes are designed to support group-based research and prioritize areas; individual mathematicians need to develop their research programs according to their own best judgement. We do not always see eye to eye. It makes no sense for the institutes to control the prioritization of our individual grants.

Here, then, is my story.

Continue reading “Letter to NSERC: Canadian mathematics does not need “priority areas””

Would NSERC have paid for developing the laser?

It’s been so busy here, I almost missed out on blogging the 2010-11 federal budget and its consequences for research funding. Paul Wells in Maclean’s:

[T]he motor of basic research in the country is the three granting councils, SSHRC, NSERC and the CIHR. Budget 2010 gives them $32 million a year in new funding, beginning in 2010-11. Which is great (not really; it’s very modest) until you remember that last year’s budget imposed a $43 million cut on the three councils for ’10-11. So now they’ll only have to find $11 million in cuts next year. Hooray.

According to the official NSERC press release, NSERC is getting an 13M increase this year. Unfortunately, this covers only slightly more than a half of the 23.3M cut for 2010-11 from last year’s budget, and a further 34.7M cut is coming in 2011-12. Moreover, only 8M of the 13M increase will go towards the Discovery Grants program. The remaining 5M is for the “Strategy for Partnerships and Innovation”:

Our goal is to accelerate innovation in Canada by helping businesses of all sizes and in all sectors connect and collaborate with the research strength in our post-secondary institutions to find the competitive edge they need to excel.

For example (emphasis mine):

Two research projects at the University of Western Ontario were among the 122 projects chosen to receive federal funding under a program that aims to turn the results of academic research into real benefits for Canadians.

First of all, if you really believe that “academic research” is, well, just academic, as opposed to commercial technology which provides “real benefits”, I’d like to refer you to this Guardian article on the 50th anniversary of one of the most ubiquitous modern technological inventions, the laser:

Since then the technology has been developed, miniaturised, commoditised, extended and deployed to the point where it’s virtually impossible to find a manufactured product that hasn’t encountered a laser at some stage in its creation or use. When you play a DVD, a semiconductor laser less than a millimetre wide scans the disc’s surface. The intricate cutting and welding of the steel in your car door was done by lasers. The internet’s backbone runs mainly via laser light transmitted along fibre-optic cables. Every supermarket checkout uses a laser beam to scan barcodes. American forces in Afghanistan are now using powerful lasers mounted on Humvees to detonate any roadside bombs ahead of them.

Lasers are thus a critical part of our technological infrastructure, yet no one involved in the research that led to them had any inkling of what their investigations would produce. The original idea goes back to a paper Albert Einstein published in 1917 on “The Quantum Theory of Radiation” about the absorption, spontaneous emission and stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation. For 40 years, stimulated emission was of absorbing interest to quantum physicists, but of little interest to anyone else – certainly to nobody in government.

Continue reading “Would NSERC have paid for developing the laser?”

Conferences, peer review, and political interference

Our science minister Gary Goodyear is getting involved with organization and funding of scientific conferences. Last week he asked the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to reconsider funding for an upcoming conference at York University. Specifically, he recommended conducting a “second peer review”. Here is an excerpt from his official statement:

It has come to my attention that following a recommendation of a peer review board earlier this year, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council provided $19,750 under its Aid to Research Workshops and Conferences Program to a conference at York University entitled “Israel/Palestine: mapping models of statehood and prospects for peace”.

Approval of this funding was based on an initial proposal that did not include detailed information on the speakers at the conference. Since funding was provided, the organizers of the conference have added a number of speakers to their agenda.

Several individuals and organizations have expressed their grave concerns that some of the speakers have, in the past, made comments that have been seen to be anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic. Some have also expressed concerns that the event is no longer an academic research-focussed [sic] event.

The SSHRC did request an update from the conference organizers, then issued a statement to the effect that everything is in fine order, thank you very much, and the conference will be funded as planned.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers has called on Goodyear to step down:

“It’s unprecedented for a minister – let alone a minister from the department that funds the granting councils – to intervene personally with a granting council president to suggest that he review funding for an academic conference,” said CAUT executive director James Turk. “This kind of direct political interference in a funding decision made through an independent, peer-reviewed process is unacceptable and sets a very dangerous precedent.”

This blog is not an appropriate venue to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian situation, for more reasons than I could list here (and please keep that in mind if you would like to comment). Neither do I want to discuss the “hate speech” accusations such as those quoted in this article. The conference abstracts are over here. If any of them qualify as hate speech under Canadian law (see here), then there are appropriate procedures in place. Intimidation by political interference in the peer review process isn’t one of them.

I do want to repeat what I said in an earlier post: that academic freedom applies to all views expressed in the context of academic dialogue, including those we disagree with. Especially those we disagree with. That’s pretty much the point of it. And ultimately, academic freedom leads to better science. The correctness and significance of scientific ideas isn’t always clear right away and we’re better off if all such ideas are allowed to compete on their merits.

Of course, if an academic conference became a political event instead, then that would be a problem. However, a political science conference does not become a political event just because opinions about politics are being expressed. After all, that’s what political scientists do for a living. Political action – now that would be another matter. I don’t think, though, that we’ve seen any evidence of that.

But the main purpose of this post is to clarify several aspects of the organization and funding of academic conferences for those readers who have never been involved with that.

Continue reading “Conferences, peer review, and political interference”

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. Continue reading “NSERC Discovery Grants: cut back again”

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.

Don’t stop believin’

From The Globe and Mail:

Canada’s science minister, the man at the centre of the controversy over federal funding cuts to researchers, won’t say if he believes in evolution.

“I’m not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don’t think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate,” Gary Goodyear, the federal Minister of State for Science and Technology, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

A funding crunch, exacerbated by cuts in the January budget, has left many senior researchers across the county scrambling to find the money to continue their experiments.

Some have expressed concern that Mr. Goodyear, a chiropractor from Cambridge, Ont., is suspicious of science, perhaps because he is a creationist.

Sure enough, that response got him in hot water. Here he tries to walk it back:

“We are evolving every year, every decade,” Mr. Goodyear said on the television program. “That’s a fact, whether it is to the intensity of the sun, whether it is to, as a chiropractor, walking on cement versus anything else, whether it is running shoes or high heels – of course we are evolving to our environment.”

Actually, if that’s the type of evolution we’re talking about, then here’s a better example, courtesy of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for the worst opening sentence of an imaginary novel.

As she watched the small form swing backwards and forth from the crystal chandelier – hands on hips, sniffing the air and squeaking inaudibly – it suddenly became clear to Madame de Pompomme that she had done the wrong thing asking Jacques to find and bring back her long-lost sister: for, whilst her coterie would doubtless be enchanted for a short while, the novelty of Janine having been raised by bats since the age of two in caves of the North-west Congo would soon wear off in seventeenth-century France.

Do click on that link and read the other winning entries. I’m happy to wait.

Here’s CBC reporting on further developments. No, not women swinging from chandeliers in high heels. The Goodyear story.

On Wednesday, following a speech at the Economic Club of Toronto outlining the government’s incentives and funding for science and technology, Goodyear refused to clarify further, insisting his personal views aren’t important.

When asked whether there was a conflict with someone with his portfolio being a creationist, he responded: “Absolutely not. How ridiculous. It’s absolutely ridiculous. That’s why I didn’t answer the question — because it has no relevance.”

As a teacher with 15 years of experience, I would very much like to tell you, Minister, what happens when a professor tells students that their questions are irrelevant and ridiculous. On second thought, there’s no need for me to explain it, really. Just go to the RateMyProfessor website and browse through it at random. And you thought, Minister, that we were tough on you?

Back to CBC:

He added that decisions about what areas of science should be funded are mostly made by scientists themselves through organizations such as granting councils, not by him.

Goodyear again, in the Globe and Mail:

“My view isn’t important. My personal beliefs are not important. What’s important is that this government is doing the right thing for science and technology – to support science as we have in every single budget,” he said during a brief scrum after a speech to the Economic Club of Canada.

Ah, but the government is not doing the right thing. The Globe and Mail articles mention the cuts to research funding that will leave many of us scrambling. I wrote about it here at length. This government’s science policies were not designed by scientists. Had scientists been involved and given more than a token voice, they would have pointed out that the best equipped labs are useless without top quality personnel. That graduate school is not just like undergraduate college, only with more advanced classes. That basic curiosity-driven research – even though it can produce extremely high returns in the long run – isn’t likely to attract industrial funding and must be supported by the government. From the Discover Magazine some time ago:

So who knows what else we’re working on that might well be in everybody’s back pocket one day? This puts me in mind of one of my favourite quotes from the great Michael Faraday, one of the giants that helped shape our modern understanding of electricity and magnetism (see a nice BBC History website about him here). He was asked by the British Chancellor (Gladstone at the time) about what was the use of this electricity he was working on. His reply was “I do not know sir, but I wager that one day you will put a tax on it”.

There, Mr. Goodyear. You do believe in taxes, don’t you?

Stephen Harper: not good for science, not good for Canada

From the Globe and Mail:

At a time when U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to “restore science to its rightful place” with billions in new investments, leaders in the Canadian research community were left scratching their heads over Stephen Harper’s response to what many fear will become a widening funding gap.

The headline numbers offered Tuesday drew praise from university leaders. There is $2-billion for colleges and universities to fix their aging buildings, $87.5-million for new graduate scholarships and $750-million for the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which funds research infrastructure. […]

But more than 250 pages back in the budget are figures that point to cuts to the three federal granting councils, the bodies that hand out the money to support continuing research. Over three years, the base budgets of the three agencies will be reduced by $87.2-million; the government says this money will be directed to other spending programs in higher education.

More here. A further clarification from the Educational Policy Institute:

The new money is meant to pay for 500 doctoral scholarships valued at $35,000 annually over 3 years and 1,000 one-time scholarships for students at the Master’s level valued at $ 17,500 each. Scholarships in science and medicine are unrestricted in terms of subject area; SSHRC scholarships, on the other hand, will be restricted to students in programs related to business studies. This, again, is consistent with earlier Conservative policies, which have specifically avoided providing SSHRC with new funds for areas apart from business and economics.

However, the granting councils will not see an overall budget increase as a result of these scholarships. This is because the three councils, as a result of regular Program Review, will see a cumulative decrease in their funding over the next three years of $87.2 million. Thus, the new graduate scholarships are effectively being paid for as-yet unspecified reductions in other areas of research spending. Moreover, while the increase in scholarships is temporary (after two years, spending is supposed to revert back to present levels), the cut in budgets is meant to be permanent.

Evidently, Mr. Harper, Mr. Flaherty, and their advisors don’t know or care much about either science or graduate education.

Continue reading “Stephen Harper: not good for science, not good for Canada”

Broken or not, fix it anyway?

The latest issue of the AMS Notices starts with an op-ed by J.-P. Bourguignon:

Lately, in many countries, the financing of research has been following a very common trend, according to which, to be financially viable, a project should have a pre-defined critical size as well as cluster a number of activities. There are undoubtedly disciplines for which this is all well and good, but except under very special circumstances this is not what fits mathematicians’ needs. […]

Obvious questions include: what forms should infrastructures have in order to help mathematicians develop their research in the best possible conditions?

To spell it out more clearly: the “common trend” refers to investing more research money in flashy big programs and enterprises, while at the same time neglecting our daily bread and butter programs, especially individual grants. Bourguignon talks about Europe and in particular the EU, but Canadian science is not immune to this, either.

This is not at all surprising from the political point of view. Administrative units such as institutes, brandishing significant political clout and a capacity to lobby and advocate for themselves at all levels of government, deal mostly in collaborative modules that support a large group of scientists for a limited period of time. It’s obviously in their interest to promote this model of funding. Individuals, regardless of their preferences, aren’t able to exert the same type of influence. Meanwhile, it looks good on a politician’s résumé to have reorganized a funding mechanism, proposed new strategies, developed innovative solutions. Maintaining a long-established program does not carry the same bragging rights.

But from the scientists’ point of view, there’s no funding mechanism that’s more vital to us than our individual research grants. No amount of funding for institutes and other large initiatives can replace that.

Because, for the most part, our research is a sustained long-term individual effort. Continue reading “Broken or not, fix it anyway?”