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

science.

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

http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/_doc/Funding-Financement/DGStat-SDStat_eng.pdf

*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.

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)

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