PIMS Collaborative Research Groups

(Edited below, 09/06/2011)

PIMS Collaborative Research Groups are groups of

[…] researchers with a common research interest and with a common desire to collaboratively develop some aspects of their research programs. The groups may already exist, organizing joint seminars and workshops, making joint PDF appointments, or developing joint graduate training programs, but will have the potential to do much more, given resources and organizational structure through PIMS.

A CRG must have a “critical mass” of participating researchers from PIMS member universities, that is, the major universities in western Canada plus the University of Washington. The smallest group that I can recall had 8 faculty, but usually there are many more, in the 20-30 range, and the numbers only seem to keep getting larger. (Once in a while a CRG includes a few participants from other institutions, but this is not common, and in any case it is a very small fraction of the group.) Each CRG has one or several “leaders” who develop the proposal and coordinate the project.

The PIMS 2010 Annual Report (link to PDF) tells us that PIMS spent $220,846 on CRGs in 2010. This figure is for the calendar year, which does not coincide with the fiscal year, and presumably does not include major items such as postdocs or summer schools, which are reported separately in their own categories. There were 4 CRGs ending in 2010, 2 ongoing, and 2 starting in 2010. Between all that and what I’ve gleaned in the past, the actual total CRG budget might be about 100-130K per year, per group. (If anyone here has better information, please correct me.) The money is parcelled out into amounts designated for specific purposes, i.e. this much for each of this many postdocs, this much for each distinguished visitor (one per year), etc.; the rest of the funding for each item comes from the Discovery Grants of the participants. Additionally, each CRG gets about one BIRS workshop per year, again from a separate budget (this time BIRS).

According to the program webpage, the CRGs “create new research opportunities,” “enhance training programs,” “generate new ways of having its [PIMS’s?] scientific programs driven by its member scientists,” integrate, facilitate, create a context, as well as foster a variety of things.

What could possibly go wrong?

I’ve said before that this is not my favourite funding program, basically because too much of it revolves around politics rather than scientific merit. Well, whatever. Not every research support program has to please me. But I’m concerned about the ongoing trend to support “big science,” as represented by large groups or major new initiatives and of which CRGs are a good example, at the expense of individual funding.

The Discovery Grants budget in mathematics took the first large cut in 2007 and has been decreasing ever since, culminating in this year’s mess. The appropriate response from NSERC would be to raise our DG budget by 70% or more, bringing it in line with other disciplines of science and resolving pretty much all of our financial problems. Instead, we get the long-range planning exercise where, I suspect, we’ll be asked to devise ways to do more with less. Between that and the upcoming renewal of institute funding, which will require a new framework again as the institutes are being removed from the MRS program, I’m worried that more money will get shifted away from individual grants and towards the institutes or other forms of collective funding.

There are plenty of political arguments for such a move: the PR value of large initiatives, the matching funds, the money doesn’t look spread so thin when it’s handed out in large chunks. But from the point of view of science, it would be catastrophic. I’ve written posts already on why thematic institute programs can’t replace stable individual funding. PIMS CRGs, on the other hand, support many of the same activities (postdocs, visitors) that are normally funded by Discovery Grants, but are awarded to groups rather than individuals. Let’s talk about how that works.

(Sorry about the length. I wanted to write this out in enough detail so that a non-mathematician could understand the problem, and didn’t want to run a whole series of CRG posts.)

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