Nearly five years ago, I alerted readers to an alarming trend in postdoctoral fellow awards at the Canadian Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). In my blog entitled Come on NSERC, really – you’ve completely missed the point…, I was complaining that in order to improve on their abysmal <8 percent funding rate in their fellowship program, their solution of reducing applications was the wrong one. Instead of a 66 percent decrease in the absolute number of funded fellowships, NSERC should be thinking about how to get more money into fellowships alongside trying to reduce peer review burden (which was the guise they were hiding under at the time).
Shortly after this article and to my immense pleasure, in 2013, NSERC published an evaluation of their Postdoctoral Funding model and came to three recommendations, one of which was to “Explore options to increase the financial support available to postdoctoral fellowships (PDFs).” I assumed this would fall on deaf ears, but five years on, I can happily report that something has indeed changed at NSERC and the numbers are definitely recovering.
Five years ago I’d initially reported on:
- 250 / 1169 (2008)
- 254 / 1220 (2009)
- 286 / 1341 (2010)
- 133 / 1431 (2011)
- 98 / 1254 (2012)
The five years following the evaluation report represent a complete bucking of the 2011/12 decline and (hopefully) will continue to climb back up to the levels seen in 2008-10:
- 110 / 802 (2013)
- 130 / 629 (2014)
- 180 / 585 (2015)
- 180 / 579 (2016)
- 199 / 594 (2017) (a 33 percent funding rate!)
A 33 percent funding rate of fellowships is something to be proud of, but the other interesting number of course is the denominator – in 2008, the awards were 25 percent more numerous, but the success rate was only 21 percent. NSERC appears to be having its cake and eating it too since they have still enforced their “you may only apply once in your lifetime” rule. While this has obviously reduced application number, I wonder what the knock-on effect was. I would love to get some extra information from NSERC on the demographics of those who applied:
- What was the balance of applications from first year post-PhD versus second year post-PhD? If I were hedging my bets as a young scientist and only had one shot, I’d be waiting until the very last moment to apply for an NSERC PDF to ensure my chances of getting it were highest. This means making an application in year two versus year one when your CV would presumably be stronger.
- Where did the applications come from? My concern with the fallout of point one is that the majority of those NOT applying would need to find a research home without a fellowship for their first year post-PhD. There is still a very real danger that the NSERC decision to only permit one application per lifetime starts to streamline our best and brightest into pre-defined academic tracks. Unless they are truly exceptional, they would likely wait until their second year – the chances that it will be in a poorly resourced research group are virtually nil. So, all the bright kids go to the already established well-resourced research groups.
- What was the male:female ratio of applicants in first versus second year applicants? What was it like in the pre-2011 days?
NSERC must track these numbers and I hope that their internal people are asking tough questions about the structure of their programs. If you want to create a country that supports top calibre early career female researchers for example, questions like number 3 above are critical to understanding whether changes in programs encourage or discourage applications from women.
All of the above said, I think it is fantastic that NSERC has begun to turn things around – I was incredibly worried when they were directly funding fewer than 100 fellows across Canada and doubling that number over the last five years is a very promising sign that investment is once again going in the direction of people.