A postdoctoral research fellow is asking the Federal Court of Canada to review the appeals policy of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
Johannes Wheeldon, a post doc at Washington State University, is seeking judicial review of SSHRC’s postdoctoral fellowship competitions in which the only feedback provided to applicants are two scores based on 13 sub-criteria.
Wheeldon, whose research interests include crime and justice policy, has spent eight months attempting unsuccessfully to discover the scoring methodology.
“SSHRC program staff has provided at least three explanations on scoring postdoctoral applications,” Wheeldon said. “None of these has adequately shown how evaluation committees weigh various criteria within the competition. The latest explanation — provided only after my failed attempt to appeal my score — is not the same as the information currently provided to future applicants for a post doc grant.”
Based on previous case law, as long as a funding agency provides adequate reasons for a decision, there is little recourse for failed applicants, Wheeldon says, but SSHRC only provides two scores with no explanation for their compilation.
“Unless applicants know how various elements are weighed and the specific evaluation criteria, they can’t successfully appeal or strengthen future proposals,” he said. “Unfortunately, this makes finding a non-judicial solution nearly impossible.”
This is not the first time SSHRC has been challenged on the transparency of its appeal process, but as Wheeldon notes “applicants challenging funding agency decisions have not fared well at federal court.” Legal fees alone could be tens of thousands of dollars and the court has historically given broad deference to the country’s research funding organizations.
Given the increasing importance of grants, Wheeldon worries he may be ending his Canadian academic career before it begins. “I’m not arguing that I deserved funding, or that those who were successful didn’t. But the process undertaken fails to meet the standard of procedural fairness required in Canada. SSHRC is a central funding platform and essential to the Canadian academic community. It can and must do better.”
A 2008 SSHRC report included numerous recommendations to improve transparency, better communicate expectations and clarify selection criteria.