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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2012

NSERC’s Discovery Grant Program: Disquieting Changes & Why They Matter to Canadian Science

By Béla Joós
Nserc’s Discovery Grant Program has constituted the back-bone of academic science research in Canada for decades. Traditionally, research-active faculty members were expected to hold a Discovery Grant. Discovery Grants provide the main component of graduate student support, supplemented by teaching assistantships and scholarships, most of which come from NSERC programs.
Over the last two years, the Discovery Grant Program has been changing, not only in the way in which its grants are allocated, but also in its mission statement. It all started with a perception that the high success rate of renewals could not be indicative of excellence. No rational argument could dispel that perception, not even strongly worded support from an international review launched in 2008.1
The Discovery Grant Program provides base funding and, in Canada, often represents the only source of funding for research programs (as opposed to projects), and therefore a high success rate is to be expected in any stable system (footnote: a faculty member can only apply for one Discovery Grant; therefore a low success rate means a high attrition rate in the number of active academic researchers).
The international review praised the program. It noted the high quality of research in Canada and the relatively small variation in average publication quality as a function of grant size. In parallel to this review, the grant selection process was re-examined by a national committee to come up with a structure that would better serve an increasingly multidisciplinary approach to science.
To remove the bias of specialized Grant Selection Committees toward their core research fields, a conference model was established. Researchers submit to one of 12 discipline-based evaluation groups which set up an evaluation committee reflecting the research area of the applicant. An oft-heard criticism of the old selection process was the strong correlation between renewal amounts and the returning applicant’s previous grant amount. This has been eliminated by basing funding on scores assigned to an application for each of three evaluation criteria: (i) excellence of the researcher, (ii) the merit of the research proposal, and (iii) achievements and plans for research training.
Each of these criteria is given one of the scores of exceptional, outstanding, excellent, very strong, strong, moderate, or insufficient. The total score, without additional input from the committee, determines the applicant’s new grant. NSERC proudly showed the decorrelation through scatter-plots of new awards versus old awards. The success rate also dropped significantly, down to between 60 and 70 per cent.
The new system is not the only cause of the decline in success rate. Inadequate funding is putting a lot of pressure on the grant program. It has not received any significant influx of capital, in spite of a large growth in the number of applicants, including many Canada Research Chairs and, as of this fall, Canada Excellence Research Chair holders.
However, the drop in success rate is not the only notable change. The conversion of scores to a monetary value is not a linear function and is strongly biased towards the higher scores, leading to a large spread in grants, with a significant segment of applicants receiving significantly decreased or nil awards.2 This includes most new faculty members (called “early career researchers” or ECRs) or first renewals, who are not given preferential treatment.
The surprise for the 2011 competition is the small size of the ECR grants, which presages a profound change in the way university research will be supported in Canada. The full meaning of NSERC’s announcement, to only fund excellent research, is only now emerging.
Although this announcement did not raise alarm initially because of the general perception among academics that research in Canada is of high caliber, it is now understood that a revolution is underway. NSERC only intends to support adequately the best, and not to provide sufficient base funding to academic research, upon which universities have grown to depend over the past few decades. The impact will be particularly acute on ECRs. Small starting grants will render it difficult for most of them to maintain excellence unless they hold other sources of funding, such as through a Canada Research Chair.
First renewals are also major losers, as the loss of funding may jeopardize their careers. The new “winner takes all” philosophy leaves no room for nurturing or recovery from interruptions in research. Contrary to many other countries, such as the U.S. and the European community, there are no internal funds to maintain baseline research activity if the NSERC Discovery Grant is cut or is insufficient.
The loss of broad-based funding will affect smaller institutions more strongly, as their faculty take on heavy teaching loads. The new situ­ation risks dramatically changing life on university campuses. The increased competitiveness for Discovery Grants will affect collegiality by concentrating grants in the hands of a few, who will aggressively defend their research programs and minimize their involvement in teaching, administration and community service.
These activities bring no recognition from granting agencies since they only reduce time for research. Why would a researcher risk even a drop of one point in his score when at the higher end it can result in a loss of tens of thousands of dollars?
Attempting to increase research intensity on campuses, within a system funded primarily by provincial grants based on student enrolment, puts added pressure on resources used for undergraduate studies. These are already stretched to the limit, as witnessed by growing nationwide concern about the decrease in the quality of the student experience.3
The current decline in success rate will also reduce the number of faculty members involved in graduate training, leading in turn to larger groups. Who will read all the theses written? Teach all the graduate courses? With the strong emphasis on highly-qualified personnel, and with government laboratories no longer committed to fundamental research, there are cutting-edge areas in science which may be affected, as they attract the brightest but not in large numbers.
The system favors large groups and the larger institutions. It will limit the participation of undergraduates in research, especially in smaller universities which have traditionally provided excellent undergraduate training and prepared some of our best scientists. But the biggest long-term concern is bringing young researchers into Canadian universities as faculty members. With the emphasis on stars, there is no longer the climate to nurture new faculty members into successful researchers.
The changes in NSERC’s Discovery Grant Program have their root in an ideological climate which could be discussed at length, but I will make just two points.
First, our granting councils report to the Ministry of Industry. We do not have a Ministry of Science and Technology. At the National Research Council under its president, John McDougall, only those few key areas which can clearly demonstrate a near-term potential for commercialization will be supported.4 Although well-meaning, this is not a science policy, but an industrial policy.5 By its very nature, science is an investment in the long term.
Second, the changes at NSERC, and the new programs initiated by the government suggest the new philosophy is to fund generously the super-achievers who are the most likely to produce major breakthroughs. Underlying all of this is the belief that most acade­mic research is useless, and only the work of a few stars matter. Wayne Hocking argues strongly against such a philosophy in an opinion piece in a recent issue of Physics in Canada. He makes the point that most breakthroughs are the re­sults of years of incremental research.6 Charles Townes, in describing the discovery of the laser, showed how much that discovery depended on a massive amount of research on atomic spectroscopy and the study of atomic beams, work seemingly of little commercial value.7
The motivation of the Canada Research Chairs and the Canada Foundation for Innovation programs inaugurated by the Liberal government of Paul Martin was to inject an overdue influx of money into academic or fundamental research and reverse the brain drain. Stephen Harper’s government is following this with increasingly targeted funding at NSERC and a new class of super Canada Research Chairs, the Canada Excellence Research Chairs, who took up their faculty positions last year. These injections of capital are only good if they are not made to the detriment of core funding.
As revealed in discussions with NSERC officials at the Canadian Association of Physicists Congress last June, the Discovery Grant Program is strapped for cash and has not grown to meet the rising demands placed on it by new applications, many coming from the new research chair programs. Consequently, a large fraction of researchers are receiving less funding, if any. To aggravate matters, this year Canada Excellence Research Chair holders will also be applying to that already strained program.
It is time to rise to the defence of the Discovery Grant Program. The underfunding of the program will have a major impact on the diversity of research and the nurturing of young faculty members in Canadian universities. The Canadian Association of Physicists has recently circulated to physics department chairs speaking notes to use in lobbying their upper administration to come to the rescue of the program. Those notes give a series of arguments as to why the program is vitally important to universities. Here is a personal summary of the three points:

(i) Effect on trainees: Lower success rates mean fewer opportunities for undergrads to experience research. This will be particularly important for smaller institutions which have been providing high-quality graduate students. The quality of training of graduate students will suffer, with fewer supervisors and larger groups. These large groups may appeal to some but may be detrimental to others. Many successful scientists think fondly of the years working closely with their supervisors.
(ii) Effect on innovation/tech transfer: Innovation cannot be forced and may appear anywhere. Inadequate core funding reduces the base of committed individuals. A broad base of sufficiently funded researchers working on fundamental problems is necessary for the emergence of new ideas.
(iii) Effect on faculty recruitment/retention: Poor funding of the majority of faculty members, and particularly of early career researchers, may lead to a new brain drain, and jeopardize the buildup of the next generation of regular faculty members dedicated to quality teaching and training future generations of Canadian scientists.
Bringing these points to university administrators should not be left exclusively to department chairs. The importance of fundamental research as an investment in our long term prosperity should be emphasized to government officials. The Discovery Grant Program is the heart and soul of Canadian science funding, and we must all work together to ensure it provides a broad base of funding for fundamental research from which excellent science and new technologies will emerge.

Béla Joós is professor of physics at the University of Ottawa and editor of Physics in Canada.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.

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1. Report of the Internaónal Review Committee on the Discovery Grants Program and B. Joós, “Striking the right balance within NSERC’s Discovery Grant Program.”

2. For statistics on Discovery Grant awards see

3. James Bradshaw, “Universities acknowledge erosion of the undergraduate expe­rience,” Globe and Mail, Sept. 15, 2011; and “Canadian universities must reform or perish,” Globe and Mail, Oct. 11, 2011 (editorial).

4. Barrie McKenna, “John McDougall: Hungry for better ‘return’ on research,” Globe and Mail, Aug. 5, 2011.

5. Pauline Gravel, “Un secteur négligé par les partis politiques — Et la recherche scientifique?” Le Devoir, April 30, 2011.

6. Wayne Hocking, “In Praise of Incremental steps and Modest Ideas.”

7. Charles Townes, “The 50th anniversary of the laser.”