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CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 2010

Grants program fair

In response to the article “NSERC Discovery Grants Spiral Downward” (Bulletin, October 2010), I would like to address some of the concerns raised about success rates and correct a few factual errors.

As mentioned in the article, NSERC undertook a major review of its Discovery Grants program in 2007. The two review committees found the program was highly effective in meeting its goals, but did recommend ways it could be enhanced. These focused on areas such as the peer review process, grant selection committee structure and funding levels.

With respect to peer review, the key recommendation was to separate the process of assessing scientific or engineering merit from assigning funding. In doing so, two principles were fundamental. First, that the level of a grant should be commensurate with scientific or engineering merit, and second, that within a given discipline group, proposals with similar scientific merit should have similar grant levels regardless of the applicant’s granting history with NSERC.

In 2009 and 2010, NSERC implemented these recommendations and others made by the review committees. This has created a more dynamic funding system, with increased opportunities for researchers with superior accomplishments and contributions to receive substantial increases, regardless of their history in the program. Some researchers have received more money under this system and others less.

The changes are consistent with the principles of fairness, merit and excellence that are at the heart of the Discovery Grants program. The program has kept its focus on the objectives of promoting and maintaining a diversified base of high-quality research capability, fostering research excellence, and providing a stimulating environment for research training.

The bar of excellence has been raised, both by NSERC and by the research community. Competition for grants is, and will remain, strong.

NSERC will continue to support the most productive researchers in Canada at levels that allow them to be internationally competitive. Overall support for discovery research is actually at an all-time high — almost $350 million — as opposed to being cut by $14.5 million as is erroneously reported in the article. This includes a substantial increase in Discovery Accelerator Supplements (funded exclusively from budget increases), also one of the review committee’s recommendations.

Detailed statistics about Discovery Grants and other aspects of NSERC’s operations are available on our web site. We invite all interested researchers to read them.

Let me note, though, that success rates, like any statistics, must be understood in context. Multiple factors can affect success rates in a given year, including the number and type of applicants, the overall quality of proposals received, and the specific budget available for that year.

The number of applicants for Discovery Grants has risen steadily over the past decade with the influx of new faculty hired by Ca­nadian universities, and is expected to increase again for the 2011 competition. NSERC must balance this higher demand for funding against the importance of funding top researchers at levels that allow them to sustain internationally competitive research programs, while operating within the limits of our budget.

In 2010, 72 per cent of applicants holding a grant at the time of application were successful in obtaining a grant. Those who did not have a current grant had a lower level of success.

The total number of Discovery Grants held at a given time is another important statistic to keep in mind. This figure rose steadily for much of the past decade, from 7,886 in 2001 to a high of 10,340 in 2008. It currently stands at 9,948, still well above histo­ric averages.

Isabelle Blain
Research Grants & Scholarships Directorate

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