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.