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Come on NSERC, really – you’ve completely missed the point…

Posted on August 14, 2012 by

I always knew that bad news was released on Fridays in the summer… but last Friday was pretty ridiculous.  NSERC has just announced that in order to improve its success rate (just clocked at 7.8% in the most recent competition) it will now reduce the number of times an individual can apply for a postdoctoral award from two to one.

…  now that your jaw is back in place,  let’s look at what really matters.  The absolute number of fellowships awarded by NSERC represents how many scholars it supports each year through its program, and no matter how many people are applying, this is the most important number.

Sadly, the last five years have seen NSERC’s funded fellowships drop dramatically (awards / applicants):

  • 250 / 1169 (2008)
  • 254 / 1220 (2009)
  • 286 / 1341 (2010)
  • 133 / 1431 (2011)
  • 98 / 1254 (2012)

This is unbelievable and it cannot be sugar coated with a letter about streamlining or complaints about increased applicants (just a 7% increase in applicants from 2008 to 2012).

The sad facts are that NSERC is awarding 66% fewer fellowships.  As you can imagine, this has had an effect on success rates, but NSERC’s solution is to try and reduce the number of applicants in an effort to bring up the rate so that they can rid themselves of their sub-10% success rates.

I can’t even begin to explain everything that has run through my mind while writing this post other than repeating that NSERC has completely missed the point.

If you would like your comments to be raised at the next CAPS executive meeting, I strongly encourage you to write them below.

David Kent

About David Kent

David Kent holds a PhD in Genetics (UBC) and a BSc in Genetics and English (UWO) and is currently a CIHR postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge, UK. He studies normal and malignant stem cell biology and currently sits on the executive for the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars.


17 Responses to “Come on NSERC, really – you’ve completely missed the point…”

  1. Erika says:

    This is infuriating. And I’m one of the lucky 9% from 2011. You hit the nail on the head Dave: Reducing the number of applicants does not increase the number of people being awarded fellowships.

    Furthermore, if you give people a single opportunity to apply for an NSERC PDF, they are going to wait until they have as many pubs as possible. So instead of applying during the final year of their PhD, people will have to wait until a few years after their PhD has been completed in order to accumulate more pubs so they have an increased likelihood of succeeding. Which just a) increases the age of the applicant and the total number of years of training required to march down the academic road and b) increases the requirement to receive a fellowship (e.g. it was estimated that you needed 8 pubs in 2011 – soon it will be 12 or more!).

    And just to make matters worse, $40,000 is a pathetic salary for a highly trained postdoc. I’m currently using my NSERC PDF in Australia and I make less than minimum wage. The other postdocs here make $70,000-$80,000. So young Canadian scientists are fighting tooth and nail to live in poverty.

    Why would I want to pursue a career in academia in Canada when science is so poorly funded?

  2. Casteels says:

    NSERC’s reason for the drop this year (and partially the year before) is that money had to be moved to fund this year’s crop of new CREATE programs. The scary part is that there are still two more years of new CREATE programs that will need money from somewhere! Which I guess implies that unless the scholarships and fellowships budget is greatly increased there may only be about 30 PDFs in a few years!

  3. Richard Gordon says:

    It might be relevant to read:
    Gordon, R. & B.J. Poulin (2009). Cost of the NSERC science grant peer review system exceeds the cost of giving every qualified researcher a baseline grant. Accountability in Research: Policies and Quality Assurance 16(1), 1-28.
    and ask where all that money is going. Contact me for copies.

  4. [...] screwing the scientific research community and early career scientists around enough, they’ve decided to artificially inflate their grant success rate by limiting the number of times you can app…. So much for the old try, try [...]

  5. Thank you for writing this article and alerting others to this policy change. I wrote about the issue as well in a blog post:
    It would be interesting to hear from recent NSERC postdocs who were successful in their second application. Stories from people in that scenario would be a useful contribution to the discussion following this policy change.

    There is a developing social media space ( devoted to discussions around NSERC data. I encourage you and others interested in Canada’s research policy to join, share opinions, and share data.

    • I applied for an NSERC PDF in 2010, and my application was rejected. I applied again in 2011, and was successful in both the NSERC and Banting PDF competitions (obviously accepting the latter). But if this new rule had been in place at the time, I would have been completely out of luck.

  6. Brent Pym says:

    Thanks, David, for bringing this issue to our attention. I’ve been making a few plots for the BuzzData space that Jim Colliander alluded to. You can find them here:!/visualizations

    The plot showing the funding of NSERC PDFs over time, accounting for inflation, is particularly alarming: in the 2012 competition, the annual value of the NSERC PDF award amounted to just $3126 per applicant, down from a peak of $15968 per applicant (2012 dollars) in 2001—an 80% decline over the past 11 years.

    Based on the data here:

    we find that the analogous figure for the NSERC Banting Fellowships is $5570/applicant, with a success rate of 8.0%. Hence, the Bantings do very little to compensate for the decline in PDFs.

    NSERC has suggested that the decline is balanced by the new CREATE programs, but I haven’t seen a detailed breakdown of how these programs have actually affected postdocs—especially those in the more basic fields, which are not favoured by the program. If someone else has this information, please let me know, or, better yet, join us on BuzzData and share it.

  7. Jim Clark says:


    It is not just post-doc awards that have suffered by NSERC’s elite funding programs, including CRCs and now the Excellence awards. Funding for individual research grants has also not kept pace with the number of researchers in Canada. Canada once did very well on the international stage by scientific indicators because of its relatively egalitarian funding of individual students and researchers. No more. We will look good for politicians and presidents of large universities, but at the expense of actually funding what use to be a wide base of productive researchers. It is only going to get worse as long as image and photo-ops are the primary determinant of funding programs.


  8. [...] things are bad for us in the social sciences/humanities side, the hard sciences have an advantage. Recent announcements about the NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowship program, however, and figures put together by my friend Brent Pym (a PhD Candidate in Math @ U of T), help [...]

  9. [...] start becoming shelved because of tightening funding rates (recently reviewed by David Kent, “Come on NSERC, really – you’ve completely missed the point…”) there is ample reason to be concerned. Under these conditions the challenge of discovery [...]

  10. [...] has finally responded to the multiple articles, blogs and editorials criticizing the declining success rate in its postdoctoral fellowship [...]

  11. [...] Not surprisingly, these actions have forced many laboratories to shut down (“Sequester’s 5% cuts rolls through biomedical labs” and “‘A generation of untrained scientists’ after $1.6 billion in cuts to biomedical research“), all but halting scientific advancement in the very industries this country is still able to compete globally (“A difficult pill to swallow: the harsh realities of a 15% funding rate” and “Come on NSERC, really – you’ve completely missed the point…“). [...]

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