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Highs and lows of tri-council funding


The Tri-council funding system, made up of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) funding councils, reminds me a bit of Fluffy. You know, from Harry Potter? It serves an important purpose and you feel safer knowing it’s around. Until you notice the three heads. And fangs.

Like most Canadian profs, I expect, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Tri-council funding (my granting agency is NSERC). The part I love is the cheque I get each year. The parts I hate… well, the list is a bit longer. This is the year I try to get my Discovery Grant renewed, so I guess all those hates are right at the top of my mind.

The ratio between the amount of money I receive versus the amount of time it takes me to write my NSERC proposal is probably the poorest out of any of my grants. In fact, a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggested that I spent 25 times more hours on my NSERC grant application for every dollar I got from NSERC, compared to one of my other grants. I’m certainly not the only prof to wonder if it was really worth it.

But there are a lot of intangible benefits of Tri-council funding that you just can’t get from any other source. Most obvious is the prestige. The intensive reviews of each grant during the application process really demonstrate the quality of your research to promotion committees; holding a Tri-council grant is thought to be very helpful for performance reviews and tenure and promotion applications.

The other important benefit is flexibility. Once you have the money, you can use it for any approved purpose; for me, this has meant funding anything from unexpected field expenses and spikes in fuel costs, to travel for developing new and ongoing research collaborations, to those curiosity-driven research projects that NSERC claims to want to support. It has certainly iced my research program’s cake.

But the relative buying power of an NSERC grant is getting smaller and smaller. My annual grant is barely enough to cover a stipend for a single grad student, and clearly I’m not going to get much curiosity-driven research done with the pennies that are left over. So I could fund a student, but they couldn’t do anything once they got here. It is thus clearly insufficient for funding any significant research programs; its primary values are in providing matching funds, attracting other grants, and covering unanticipated expenses.

NSERC is undergoing a transition at the moment, and controversy around its practices are swirling. In June, University Affairs reported that approval for NSERC’s performance has increased since key changes were introduced a few years ago. But I have to say I haven’t met a single person who likes the new system better than the old one. I know numerous professors who have active, productive research programs and whose funding was not renewed following these changes. Naturally, this makes me pretty uneasy about my own chances.

All I can do now is work on my application and take my chances. And hope that Fluffy is as friendly as Hagrid thinks he is. Next year, I’ll report back on whether my proposal provided the music that calmed the savage beast.

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  1. Nancy / October 3, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    From a doctoral student’s perspective there are also many problems with this funding. I went back to school after 15 years in the workforce. I do not have the publications and research experience which make the chances of receiving these grants higher. There should be a category for mature returning students. In addition, for someone who is older and has children and household expenses, the grant is not sufficient funds to be able to support a family. Permitting us to teach only one course or a minimal number of hours of research is not enough. Moreover, for someone in social sciences, clinical work can be an important part of one’s career, yet again the grant does not allow for clinical work while receiving the funding. Lastly, I moved from Quebec to Ontario after starting my doctoral studies and have encountered numerous obstacles with regards to grant exclusion criteria since the move. My university is in Quebec, but my research centre is a Toronto hospital. This makes me ineligible for many of the grants/scholarships.

  2. James Colliander / October 3, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    Thank you for taking the time to write about your experience with the NSERC Discovery Grants. This program is the precious jewel underpinning scientific advancement in Canada and scientists need to speak up and defend it. Over the past decade, we have witnessed a basic transformation of the program. Ten years ago, two thirds of NSERC’s total budget of around $1B was directed toward Discovery Grants. Now, it is merely one third of the total budget. Slowly and steadily, the money that was once used to fund basic research has been transferred into a potpourri of boutique programs for industrial partnerships. This might look good politically but will end up hurting Canada. Basic research selected through peer review is a strategically superior investment than current Research Partnership Programs. NSERC should return to its roots and invest in academic research instead of industrial partnership programs.

  3. K. Ponnambalam / October 14, 2011 at 9:14 am

    I have a reasonable grant from the discovery program but one needs to do a good job with the entire proposal. Get someone recently successful to help you.

    Before the new system if you have had enough good publications you are almost sure to do well. This is not a guarantee anymore which makes the so-called established researchers sweat and gives chances to the newcomers.

    I agree that at least 50% of money should be discovery program.

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