The sad state of research funding in Canada

NSERC logo shattered

NSERC is broken.

Robert G. Latta recently had a piece in the CAUT Bulletin on recent changes to the way NSERC funds research in Canada in engineering and the sciences. You can read the article here.  Dr. Latta  makes abundantly clear that the changes NSERC has instituted will not end well for researchers. I agree with him, and would go even further.

I used to be a NSERC-supported researcher myself, but in the last two years, I’ve been unable to have by Discovery Grant renewed.  Last year, I realized too late that one of the reviewers of my grant proposal was factually incorrect in his review in several instances.  I was so disappointed by the results that I missed the deadline to appeal NSERC’s decision on the grounds that one of the reviewers was an idiot.  This year – well, I haven’t yet received the reviewers’ comments, so I can’t say for certain.  But reading Dr. Latta’s article certainly gave me some ideas of what to expect.

I’ve never had many graduate students (at once).  This is because I prefer to spend quality time with each of them – to mentor them in ways that are difficult to measure; not just publications or getting high grades in graduate courses, but also how to think critically in general, how to have measured, rational opinions. These are the qualities that will make them true contributors to society.  The “book knowledge” they get – or generate – in the course of the graduate work will mean nearly nothing in comparison.

Apparently, the small size of my grad student “stable” works against me in the new NSERC scheme.

Here’s another problem.  Last year, one reviewer commented pejoratively on the abstract nature of my research.  That would be fine, if I’d applied for funding through one of the more applied programs targeted at collaborations with industry.  But I’d applied for a Discovery Grant, which is exactly meant to support the abstract and fundamental research that I do.

This is compounded by my speciality: engineering design.  Design is pretty much ignored in Canada – especially in engineering.  And basic research in design – the kind I do – is nearly verboten here, although it is vigorously pursued in many other parts of the world.  What, am I supposed to emigrate to some other country just to be able to do what research I want?

There’s another huge question here: are we producing too many “highly qualified personnel” (HQP)? I mean, do we really need that many people with Masters and Doctoral degrees?  We don’t, actually, because most things that need doing can handily be done with only either a Bachelors degree or even just a diploma or certificate from a college or trade school.

Don’t get me wrong – improving one’s education is always good.  But it’s good because it makes one a better informed, more rational thinker, and not because it gets you the best jobs and the highest salaries.  Indeed, I find it frightfully superficial to think that people get advanced degrees only to get better, higher paying jobs.  If you look at the people who’ve made the most difference in the world, it becomes quite evident that advanced degrees are not necessary.

Some might argue that I’m just a reactionary.  That couldn’t be farther from the truth.  What I have a problem with is change that makes matters worse instead of better, and recent changes to NSERC’s grant proposal evaluation methods are most definitely making things worse.

Others might argue that I’m only bitter because I haven’t had my funding renewed.  That’s not true either, because I’ve been complaining about NSERC for most of my academic career – even when I was being funded.  And in any case, I don’t really care anymore if I have NSERC funding or not.  Let’s say I give up on research funding.  The only way to do my own research would be by myself, unaided by graduate students. Well, without having to worry about getting and administering grants, and all the paperwork that goes with maintaining the graduate students, then I’d have plenty of time to do my own research.

Hmm: dumping a bunch of useless paperwork to have time to do things I really want to do.  Not really seeing the downside there.

If NSERC really wanted to do something that would help promote research and innovation in academia, they’d do something like what was recommended by Gordon and Poulin in their 2009 paper published in Accountability in Research: Policies and Quality Assurance, called Cost of the NSERC Science Grant Peer Review System Exceeds the Cost of Giving Every Qualified Researcher a Baseline Grant.  The punchline of the paper is that the authors “show that the $40,000 (Canadian) cost of preparation for a grant application and rejection by peer review in 2007 exceeded that of giving every qualified investigator a direct baseline discovery grant of $30,000 (average grant).”

That’s right: more money is wasted by the NSERC review process than is spent on research.  Put another way, for every dollar NSERC bestows upon a research, at least one more dollar is wasted in the review process.

The obvious fix is to simple give the money away to any qualified researcher.  While one might object on the grounds that questionable research might end up being funded, the system is self-correcting over time, because there are plenty of extant policies in place to prevent that sort of thing from happening.  And anyways, really screwy research will never get published, so it doesn’t really matter.

There are of course other techniques that would vastly improve the NSERC Discovery Grant program.  My favourite is to base future funding exclusively on past results.  Currently, there is no check on whether you actually spent your DG funds on what you proposed to do.  So you knock yourself stupid coming up with the perfect proposal, but once it’s approved you can do whatever else you want because no one checks.

That’s pretty stupid!  And wasteful!

Instead, one should just report what one did with the previous funding one had, along with one line of text asking for more funding.  If the report is good enough, then you get more funding.  The idea there is: So long as you keep doing this kind of good work, then we’ll support you.  That kind of reporting is way easier to do than proposing future work.  In fact, NSERC already expects that kind of reporting, in it’s dreaded Form 100.  So all NSERC would have to do is drop the Form 101 requirement.

Of course, one might also propose a reporting process on top of the current system, to ensure that researchers are doing what they proposed to do.  But that would impose an even higher administrative burden and lower the financial efficiency of the DG program even further.  And remember, DG grants are for big-picture, blue-sky thinking that is definitely not predictable, so one would expect imposing a reporting process would only scare researchers away from doing fundamental research – which would be a terrible idea.

Bottom line: NSERC is messing things up royally.  Dr. Latta says it eloquently and diplomatically.  I agree with him, but not quite so diplomatically.  Either way, Canada’s research capacity is going down the toilet.

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2 thoughts on “The sad state of research funding in Canada

  1. Interesting write up. I’ve heard you complaint about the NSERC before, but I never thought it was that bad. 40 grand to review a research grant? Sounds insanely expensive.
    On the other hand, it does seem necessary if too many people apply, doesn’t it?

  2. The devil is in the details. You’re assuming that if there are “too many people” who would apply to NSERC. There aren’t. In any case, that would be a separate problem.

    One of the biggest problems with the current system is that there’s no verification in Discovery Grants that you actually did what you proposed to do. You can propose one thing, and do something else entirely. When NSERC checks your record, they only check how many papers you published, and within whom (coauthors), and how many HQP (grad students) you graduated. They don’t check the connection between that work and what you proposed to get the funding to do it.

    So there’s no connection between the whole Discovery Grant proposal process and the work that a researcher does. Therefore, the proposal system is a farce – and a stunning waste of money. Just on the matter of its total lack of effectiveness, the proposal-based system needs to be completely scrapped.

    My notion of scrapping proposals in favour of a historical review is not new. Many other countries do this. It’s a good middle-ground solution because it gets rid of the useless proposal process, yet allows for some checking of a researcher’s record.

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