A senior scholar reports on S. Fortier’s presentation at the CMS meeting

First there was the open letter to the industry minister by 327 mathematical scientists, including 27 Canada Research Chairs and 35 fellows of the Royal Society of Canada. Then came the public letter by 16 members of the Evaluation Group 1508 for Mathematics and Statistics, as well as various individual letters to Isabelle Blain. All convey serious concerns about the new evaluation procedures of the Discovery Grants and the disastrous funding decisions they caused in the 2011 competition. This eventually led NSERC’s President Suzanne Fortier to travel to the Edmonton meeting of the Canadian Mathematical Society on June 03, in order to “communicate directly with the research community, and not through blogs or letters to the press”. I wasn’t there, but Walter Craig, CRC, FRSC, Killam Fellow, and chair of the Math/NSERC Liaison committee was.  He filed the following report –that we are posting here with his permission– for the benefit of Canada’s mathematical research community.

Friday June 3, 2011
Edmonton CMS meeting
Notes by Walter Craig (with thanks for corrections by N. Reid)

Jacques Hurtubise introduced Suzanne Fortier as President of NSERC, and described
her role as being in the “position of stewardship of Canadian science”.

Suzanne Fortier:

Opening statement to the effect that she is working for the success and benefit of
Canada, including the research community, but also other communities, both national
and international. Examples of scientific concerns and benefits she cites include
climate change and energy resources.

Trust is threatened, between NSERC and the mathematical sciences community. She says
that we need to communicate, but not through blogs or letters to the press. (*1)

There is an increased role of science and technology in national policies, mainly
in entrepreneurship and in IP development. On the other hand, the government has
committed itself to an overall 5% cut in order to balance the budget. This will
be spread evenly across government agencies. On top of this, the government, and
hence NSERC, wants to invest in “innovation”, shifting its emphasis further from
basic research.

NSERC total budget has grown 84% between 2001 and 2011, mostly in “innovation” and
in “people” (namely CERC’s, scholarships). The Discovery Grant total budget has
grown 40% in the same period.

SF statement that, while there is some decrease in the number of grants in
Math & Stats, the total “money is not decreasing”. At the same time, SF acknowledges
that there is a serious problem with the budget in this year’s competition. She
blames the Math & Stats community for this, with the following reasons:

* Dynamics of the Math & Stats community: (*2)
- many retirees
- fewer entering and early career researchers
- departments are not hiring young researchers

* SF critizes the Math & Stats success rates, giving data which proports to
show that our success rates are out of line with other disciplines. (*3)

* SF blames the math community for its sense of entitlement to research grants,
and its “cosiness of reviewers and the mathematics community” (*4). She states
that, but for a few changes, the old review system is still in place.

* SF blames the members of the Evaluation Group for the `bin’ distributions, for
placing too many proposals in bin J, and for `bin’ grade inflation.
- evidence of bin inflation is the fact that the EG placed 8 people in
mathematics into the `bins’ A B and C. (*5)
- This evidence was used in the decision to split the Math budget from the
Statistics budget, protecting the latter from the deep cuts experienced
by mathematicians whose proposals were rated in the middle bins.

Question from the audience: What are the dollar values for grant awards for bin A
in Chemistry, as compared to bin A in Math & Stats. What are the values for grants
in bin J in Math & Stats vs for Chemistry. [This question was not answered (*6)]

SF stated the Math & Stats competition budget to be at $3M for this DG competition
[actually it is $3,007K, a drop of 13.9% from 2010, and below our previous estimate].
She showed a detailed table which gave the NSERC investment in different NSERC
programs for the various EGs. She compared Math & Stats DG ~ $18M with CS DG ~ $27M,  and pointed out that in the MRS program Math & Stats has $4.1M while CS has
essentially $0. The table also showed the MRS budget in Physics to be $26.8M, which includes the CITA astrophysics institute in Toronto, but this was not pointed out by SF.

Another indicator of poor Math & Stats performance that SF cited is that our
discipline has 9.5% of the Discovery Grant holders, but only 5.4% of the CRCs. (*7)

As to the role of the Long Range Plan, SF said that “by itself the LRP will not
increase funding, but it may help the community identify untapped resources”,
advising members of the community to – “Don’t talk about what you need, but
how you can contribute”.

One point of light that SF mentioned is that Rita Colwell, is now chairing the CCA
committee `Expert panel: Science performance and research funding’. She is a former
Director of the NSF, and has been a supporter of basic research and of the role of
mathematics in it. This panel will write a report in 2012 which is supposed to
indicate fair and appropriate levels of research funding for future Canadian

The talk ended with a series of questions to SF and comments from the audience.

Notes by Walter Craig:

*1) We agree completely that open lines of communication between NSERC and the
mathematics community are very important. On the other hand, we have had only
partial success in attempts at direct communication with the NSERC directorate
through e-mail and through other means, especially with regards to our concerns
over the DG competition results this year.

*2) SF stated that Math & Stats lost 600K of our budget in non-returning applicants.
“You are not replenishing your faculty at universities at the same rate as other
disciplines”. However this actual data has not been released, neither in the
presentation of SF nor by other means. We would very much like to have it in
quantitative terms. In particular the mathematics community wants to know how
the budget for the 2011 DG competition was calculated, for Math & Stats as well
as for the other EGs. I note that most other EGs have not had such drastic budget
cuts imposed on them in this year’s competition (chemistry is an exception), while
Math & Stats decreased by 13.9% over one year, and 22.8% over the past five years.

*3) I do not believe that this statement is supported by the data, our success rates
lie around the middle of the other EGs, as one can check from the NSERC release


*4) This is an absolutely unwarranted criticism. I understand that the international
review was prompted by the need for NSERC to direct funding towards merit rather than
towards PI history, so this particular criticism could have been directed at the whole
system. But that is not what I understood from her comments.

*5) This argument holds very little water. The returning grants over $40K (those
that would have been in bins A, B and C if they existed at the time) number 12,
whose total budget carried into the competition is $596K. The number of new grant
allocations that are over $40K is 10, where 8 of them are in A, B and C bins. The
total budget for them is $535K. This is far from bin inflation, and very far from
draining the budget, rather the contrary.

*6) This is information that has now been released to the LRP. The Chemistry bin A is
funded at $152K and bin J is at $30K, while for comparison, computer science bin A is
at $100K and bin J is at $19K. This year’s Math & Stats bin A is worth  $52K and
bin J is at $10K.

*7) Since CRCs are allocated proportionally to NSERC dollars, and not by numbers,
while Math & Stats grants are well known to be underfunded, this is a misuse of
the statistics.

This entry was posted in Op-eds, R&D Policy. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A senior scholar reports on S. Fortier’s presentation at the CMS meeting

  1. Apropos of this blog posting, a challenge to Dr. Fortier’s arguments regarding impact and relevance is found in the 13 July issue of Nature: Nature 475,166–169(14 July 2011)

  2. Pingback: You are not alone! | Piece of Mind

  3. Pingback: Grade inflation, instability and uncertainty in Discovery Grant competitions | Piece of Mind

  4. Pingback: It may be crunch time for the presidents of Canada’s research councils | Piece of Mind

  5. Pingback: It may be crunch time for the Presidents of Canada’s research councils | Piece of Mind

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