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Changes to NSERC’s Discovery Grants spark controversy

A new system for allocating one of Canada’s most important grants program for university scientists leads to upsets in who gets funding.

BY JOHN LORINC | JUN 13 2011

University of Toronto math professor Jim Colliander likens the problem to owning a fleet of snazzy sports cars and not being able to come up with enough cash to pay for gas.

For the past decade, thanks to programs like the Canada Research Chairs, Canadian universities have successfully recruited hundreds of internationally recognized academics. But, Dr. Colliander says, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s controversial new approach to allocating Discovery Grants – one of the main public funding sources for individual researchers in the sciences and engineering – has left some emerging and established researchers empty-handed, while others limp along with inadequate funds.

“The new system has threatened the investment in talent of the last 10 or 15 years,” says Dr. Colliander, associate chair (research) for U of T’s math department. “The most talented people are the most easily recruited away.”

In recent months, such criticisms have been percolating through certain disciplines, especially Canada’s mathematics community, whose members have been particularly outspoken about the shortcomings of a system that is the result of three years of policy review by NSERC. “I understand that NSERC officials wanted to change the system and make it more dynamic and less conservative,” says University of British Columbia mathematician Nassif Ghoussoub. “But the new system is even worse than the older system.”

NSERC officials, for their part, acknowledge the math community’s concerns but staunchly defend the new peer-review process, used for the third time with the 2011 grants that were awarded in March. The new process assigns ratings ranging from “exceptional” to “insufficient” to applications for each of the three selection criteria (excellence of the researcher, merit of the proposal and training of highly qualified personnel). Then, grant applications of the same overall quality are grouped into funding “bins.” The size of the grant, relative to others in the discipline, depends on which bin the application falls into. The new system also relies on a more interdisciplinary approach to judging applications because so many research projects now straddle the traditional lines between fields.

“All disciplines feel they’re underfunded, all would like more money going to their program,” says Isabelle Blain, NSERC’s vice-president, research and scholarships. But, pointing to the results of a survey of peer reviewers (see graph), she adds, “We’re generally hearing that this new approach is an improvement over the past.”

Many academics rely on the five-year Discovery Grants to support their graduate students in the field or lab and to give them the chance to attend important international conferences. More broadly disseminated than comparable programs from funding agencies like the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Discovery Grants are also considered to be a useful leveraging tool, allowing academics to pursue other sources of funding. (U of T’s Dr. Colliander says that in 2007, each dollar of Discovery Grants brought in, on average, $2 more from other sources.)

The council decided to retool the $330-million program, seen as one of the cornerstones of Canada’s science funding policy, following studies by two prominent advisory committees, one of them international. The existing system seemed set up to provide grants to those who already had them, says Ms. Blain, and NSERC was concerned that emerging researchers were getting short-changed.

Dr. Ghoussoub says the new system has failed to deliver those objectives, partly because of the new scoring approach but also due to problems with the jury selections and because, in his view, some committees, and NSERC, are not following the rules. His blog, Piece of Mind, has become a focal point for the critics of the new method and includes examples of well-established researchers who lost funding despite strong scores.

University of Waterloo vice-president, research, George Dixon, a professor of biology, says NSERC’s bin method is less accommodating of applicants who fall down on any one of the three criteria. But, he says, U of Waterloo has fared quite well with the new system. The success rate for new applicants has risen, and now sits at about 75 percent. The dollar value of individual awards has also grown, with some of the university’s top researchers seeing their discovery grants expand by 20 percent or, in a few cases, even double.

Dr. Dixon acknowledges that about 15 to 20 solid scholars have lost their funding altogether. It is not unheard of for researchers to lose grants, but the numbers are far higher than in previous years, he said. “It has made some of our colleagues very apprehensive about applying.”

Queen’s University vice-principal, research, Steve Liss, reports that his university has also done well under the new system, although there were bumps during the transition period from the old approach. “It’s a peer-review process,” he says. “I do believe things will smooth out.”

As at other universities, he says, some researchers have lost their grants, including a few who took the renewal process “for granted.” Queen’s is now vetting the grant applications more vigorously and working with faculty members to sharpen their submissions and make them more “compelling” for the juries, says Dr. Liss. This has already improved results for some individuals, he adds. Queen’s is also encouraging researchers to “reinvent themselves” during the five-year life of a Discovery Grant.

U of Waterloo, too, is taking a more active role in assessing the substance of grant applications as well as proposed budgets, says Dr. Dixon. “We like to make sure that each proposal has been gone over by two people who know the discipline.”

But with some acclaimed researchers losing grants under the new system, universities – at least those that can afford to – are offering more than encouragement. Dr. Colliander cites the case of a young colleague courted to join U of T. He submitted an NSERC application last year while doing a stint at the independent Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey, but received only $13,000, a fraction of what might be available south of the border. Dr. Colliander says, “U of T is going to intervene to help this person run their show.”

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  1. Andrew Park / June 15, 2011 at 11:46

    There is a general feeling that smaller, primarily undergraduate institutions will be short-changed under the new system. How many small institutions can afford to make up NSERC shortfalls with discretionary donations to a researcher’s program?

    There is also a feeling that the DG grant program is drifting towards an American model in which very few researchers receive the lion’s share of the funding. Several colleagues have pointed out that in the States, those who fail to get NSF grants may make up a sizeable research fund from internal university grants and foundations, which are far more numerous and well funded in the USA. With the excpetion of applied disciplines, there really are few other such sources of funding here in Canada.

  2. Philip Hultin / June 21, 2011 at 12:00

    The “new model” at NSERC is not intrinsically bad, but the way in which it has been implemented is what is causing all the fuss among researchers.

    The international review of the DG process recommended separating the size of new grants from the size of previous grants because they saw that only incremental increases were holding people back. What has happened instead is that grant applications are being evaluated without any consideration of the resources available to the PI.

    I am one of the established researchers who lost all my funding. Because I am in a province that does not support basic research or graduate studies in any meaningful way, I have never been able to leverage my NSERC funds. Using only my NSERC DG I have consistently published in top journals and my “HQP” have gone on to outstanding places, but of necessity the numbers of people and papers I have produced have been small. Under the new system I am being compared with scientists who have teams of 10 or more students and postdoctoral associates, and there is no way I can compete in absolute numbers with such people.

    The message is clear: size does matter. NSERC is not impressed with quality alone, you must have quantity and only people in rich provinces can get that quantity.

  3. John Harter / June 23, 2011 at 07:14

    I believe this is structured to provided benefits to the national conservative government’s provincial home base. Only provinces with lots of money to throw around can now gather the HQP necessary to get NSERC funding. It acts as a national multiplier to provincial money. This ends up being a transfer of wealth from poorer provinces to richer provinces.

  4. Brian Fisher / June 28, 2011 at 00:03

    One issue that I think deserves some discussion is whether the approach that NSERC has take enhances interdisciplinarity as they suggest it should or actually discourages it. The bigger Evaluation Groups centre on disciplines and so it would seem likely that they would focus on core issues to that discipline. The smaller GSCs of the past were better placed for interdisciplinary areas such as mine. I have had two DRGs in succession under the old system but have been rejected and then funded for one year only at a low rate under the new system. Fortunately I have substantial industry support, US grants, and an NSERC Strategic Partnership grant and I can live without the DRG– I can’t see bothering to apply again under these rules.