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Tri-council funding results: The Return of Fluffy

By NICOLA KOPER | April 23, 2012

In October, I wrote about the stress of applying for the renewal of my NSERC Discovery grant and assured all of our regular readers that I would report back to you once the results of the competition were in. I said that the tri-councils remind me of Fluffy, from Harry Potter … you know, a guardian watchdog … with three heads and fangs.

Happily, I can report that my grant was, indeed, renewed. In fact, the amount of my grant was substantially increased. This makes me very happy … not in the least because I don’t have to go through the ordeal of reapplying for another five years. Frankly, I think my husband was almost as happy about it as I was; he had to put up with an awful lot of late work nights and probably a fair bit of grumpiness, while I was writing my proposal. Neither of us wanted to go through that again any time soon.

According to NSERC’s results, there were a lot of happy profs in Canada the first week of April. The success rate that they published is a lot higher than rumours had me expecting. According to NSERC, renewal rates for Discovery grant holders were a remarkable 78%, while 62% of first-time applications were approved. Thirty-six percent of proposals from established researchers who did not already hold a Discovery grant were also approved.

What these numbers cannot tell us is who was funded and who was not. There is a perception among faculty at teaching-intensive universities that their research programs are biased against and thus undermined, by Discovery grant criteria that favour large programs with many graduate students. I don’t have the details to know if this is true, but the new criteria certainly emphasize development of highly qualified personnel and the grapevine suggests that PhD candidates are preferred. Most importantly, the new criteria indicate that no proposal will be funded if they are considered “insufficient” in any category, so a small research program might not be funded even if the proposal itself is excellent. This could certainly be a problem for departments with smaller graduate programs.

This could bias unfunded research programs because Discovery grants really are unlike any other kind of grant. I can use it for anything that I know will improve my teaching or research and thus it is incredibly valuable to my program. For example, in an era when the vast majority of species conservation funding goes towards recovery of species at risk, I can choose to use my NSERC dollars to research on the conservation of species that are declining but not yet listed by the Species At Risk Act, or spaces that are at risk … both topics that are much harder to find funding to study. My Discovery grant helps me attract other funding, which lets my Discovery grant go a lot further. I can fund travel that enhances collaboration networks, students without scholarships and those inevitable cost overruns when gas jumps 13 cents a litre in one night. The freedom provided by my Discovery grant is unparalleled.

The problem is that any research program would benefit from these characteristics. Indeed, a smaller research program might suffer more from unanticipated cost overruns and might have less access to funding to pay publication charges for some prestigious journals. So it is a pity that researchers who used to be able to fund a small research program using Discovery grant funds can no longer do so.

I am happy to hear that many applicants were successful this year and I am particularly happy that I was one of them. I know my Discovery grant will greatly help the success of my program. I just wish that my colleagues with smaller research programs could share the wealth too.

Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. David Greenwood / April 25, 2012 at 2:00 pm


    Congratulations Nicola. Nice to see some MB success.

    At Brandon the story was not so happy. And, in my research area (paleontology), I have colleagues in this and recent NSERC rounds who lost funding at large research intensive universities across Canada, and people who were at non-university institutions. In some of those cases, after many successful years of NSERC funding.

    I agree with your surmise; HQP clearly matters, and MSc and USRAs don’t cut it anymore.

    I was told at a NSERC briefling in Ottawa last year that some NSERC panels ‘don’t believe’ adjuncts actually supervise graduate students, and advised to be very explicit about detailing past and planned contact time with graduate students supervised as an adjunct. Its a whole new set of rules and expectations.

    But this year’s results speak also to the other point you made; small research teams (whether at the departmental grad-program level, or at the lab level) are not getting funded. That is a shame. Small labs and small departments, like small undergraduate universities, offer a level of mentoring that is often absent at larger institutions and labs. I also think the emphasis on HQP (and especially PhDs) is a false model for success. Does Canada need more PhDs in all fields? I would argue no. In your field, conservation biology, as in my field, there are many jobs for Masters graduates. Very few for PhDs.

    Enjoy the relative peace for the next 4 years. Myself, I am girding myself for my renewal application, due this coming fall. I am hoping Hagrid has Fluffy well under control.


  2. Jim Clark / April 25, 2012 at 12:50 pm


    Success rates are a poor indicator of the impact of NSERC policies without knowing what proportion of faculty have stopped applying because they perceive the odds of success as very low to nil. Do we know what proportion of natural scientists at Canadian universities receive funding from NSERC, and what the proportions were historically?

    Take care

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