Physics in Canada / La Physique au Canada - 2011 (67.3)

The changing role of NSERC's Discovery Grant Program

Author(s)
Béla Joós
Institution
University of Ottawa

NSERC’s Discovery Grant Program (DGP) has constituted the backbone of academic science research in Canada for decades. Traditionally, research-active faculty members were expected to hold a Discovery Grant (DG). DGs provide the main component of graduate student support supplemented by Teaching assistantships (TAs) and scholarships, most of which come from NSERC programs.

Over the last two years, the DGP has been changing, not only the way in which 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 DGP 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 expected in any stable system 1. The international review praised the program [1]. 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 serve better an increasingly multi-disciplinary science.

To remove the bias of specialized Grant Selection Committees (GSC) toward their core research fields, a conference model was established. Researchers submit to one of only 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 criterion is given one of the scores: 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 total decorrelation through scattered plots of new awards versus old awards. The success rate also dropped significantly down to mid 60%.

To make matters worse, inadequate funding of the DGP is putting a lot of pressure on the program. The DGP has not received any significant influx of capital in spite of a large growth in the number of applicants, including many CRC’s 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 that 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 statement initially did not raise alarm, because of the general perception among academics that research in Canada is of high caliber, a revolution is underway.  NSERC only intends to support adequately the best and not 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 CRC. 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 USA and the European community, there are no internal funds to maintain baseline research activity if the NSERC DG is cut or is insufficient.

The loss of broad-base funding will affect more strongly smaller institutions whose faculty take on heavy teaching loads. The new situation risks to dramatically change life on university campuses. The increased competiveness for DGs 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 since these activities bring no recognition from granting agencies,  whether  NSERC or CIHR, 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 known already to be 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 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 NSERC’s large emphasis on HQP and the 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 DGP have their root in an ideological climate which could be discussed at length. In this editorial, 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 John McDougall, only those few key areas which can clearly demonstrate a near-term potential for commercialization are 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 that the new philosophy is to fund generously the super-achievers who are the most likely to produce major breakthroughs. Underlying all 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 this issue. 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 CRC and the CFI programs under 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 funds at NSERC and a new class of super CRC’s, the Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERCs), who took up their faculty positions last year. These injections of capital are good if not made at the detriment of core funding.

As revealed in discussions with NSERC officials at the CAP Congress last June, the DGP 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 the CERC holders will also be applying to that already strained program. 

It is time to rise to the defence of the DGP.  The underfunding of the DGP will have a major impact on the diversity of research and the nurturing of young faculty members in Canadian universities. The CAP recently has circulated to Physics Chairs speaking notes to lobby their upper administration to come to the rescue of the DGP. Those notes give a series of arguments as to why the DGP is vitally important to the 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 in particular 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 the ECR, may lead to a new brain drain, and jeopardize the build-up of the next generation of dedicated faculty members providing the quality teaching and training of future generations of Canadian scientists.

Bringing these points to the upper administration should not be left to Department Chairs but behooves us all. In a broader context, the importance of fundamental research as an investment in our long term prosperity should be emphasized to government officials. The DGP is the heart and soul of Canadian science funding, and we must all work together to ensure that it provides a broad base of funding for fundamental research from which excellent science and new technologies will emerge.

B. Joós, P.Phys., Editor, Physics in Canada

Comments of readers on this editorial are more than welcome.

1.   A faculty member can only apply for one DG, therefore a low success rate means a high attrition rate in the number of active academic researchers.

References
1. Report of the International Review Committee on the Discovery Grants Program, at www.nserc.ca, follow  NSERC -> Reports and Publications -> Reports and  B. Joós, “Striking the right balance within NSERC’s Discovery Grant Program”, Physics in Canada, 65, Jul-Sept (2009).
2. For full statistics on DG awards see NSERC’s website www,nserc.ca following the links:  Home -> Professors -> Discovery Grants Information Centre -> 2011 Discovery Grants Competition Summary or directly: http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/NSERC-CRSNG/FundingDecisions-DecisionsFinancement/DGSummary-SDSommaire_eng.asp
3. The Revitalization of Undergraduate Education in Canada: A report on the AUCC workshop on undergraduate education in Halifax, March 6-8, 2011, published by the Association of Universities and Colleges Canada and available on their web site: www.aucc.ca;  discussed in the press,  in particular The Globe and Mail; James Bradshaw, “Universities acknowledge erosion of the undergraduate experience”,Tuesday September 15 2011 (front page); “Canadian universities must reform or perish”, Tuesday October 11 2011 (editorial page); Jeffrey Simpson “Universities get an F for failing undergrads”  Friday October 21,  2011.
4. Barrie Mckenna, “John McDougall: Hungry for better 'return' on research”, The Globe and Mail, Saturday August 5, 2011.
5. Pauline Gravel, “Un secteur négligé par les partis politiques - Et la recherche scientifique? ”, Le Devoir, 30 avril 2011.
6. Wayne Hocking, “In Praise of Incremental steps and Modest Ideas”, Physics in Canada, this issue, p. 177.
7. Charles Townes, “The 50th anniversary of the laser (Herzberg Memorial Lecture)”, Physics in Canada, 66, 250 (2010).