NSERC’s scholarships and fellowships: Policy shift or collateral damage?

The following comment to this blog got my attention:  “I’m wondering if anyone else has noticed the most recent NSERC PGS (Post-Graduate Scholarships) and PDF (Post-Doctoral Fellowships) numbers: Across all disciplines from 2010 to 2011, Master’s awards are down 36%, Doctoral awards down 28% and, I think most alarmingly, PDF’s down 54%. In absolute numbers, math-related PDF’s are down from around 28 to only 12. It seems these numbers should be just as concerning as the DG (Discovery Grant) issue!”

I took a look, and lo and behold the dwindling numbers are indeed staggering. Just between 2010 and 2011, one can see the following drop in awarded NSERC postdoctoral fellowships.

  • In Alberta, the number of PDFs went down from 20 to 10,
  • In BC from 28 to 8,
  • In Manitoba from 5 to 0,
  • In Nova Scotia from 5 to 2,
  • In Ontario from 80 to 37,
  • In Quebec from 22 to 10, and
  • In Saskatchewan from 6 to 2.

Only in New Brunswick and New Foundland-Labrador that the numbers went up. From 0 to 1!

The same downward trend, though not as dramatic, also hit the Canada Graduate Scholarships. Still, this cannot be a minor budgetary housekeeping at NSERC. It must be a deliberate policy decision, though not a well publicized one.

Can it be the real reason behind the controversial changes in the Discovery Grant program, in particular the newly implemented review process that essentially changed its main focus from supporting research excellence into another training program? Was it a way to compensate for the cuts in the HQP programs by shifting the support of graduate students and postdocs to the Discovery Grants?

Well, it can’t really be the case considering that the average discovery grant is $34K/year (with some under $20K/year), yet an NSERC postdoctoral fellowship is (has been for years) $40K/year. It is somewhat ironic that the training of HQP is now becoming so crucial for securing a Discovery grant, yet an average DG cannot even pay for one single Postdoc.

And if this was not enough, one can also note that the budgets of most Evaluation Groups in the Discovery Grant programs have also been declining. From 2006 to 2011, we note the following cuts (more on these in a future post):

  • Mathematics and Statistics down by 19.20 %
  • Computer Science down by 16.2%
  • Chemistry down by 15.60 %
  • Electrical and Computer Engineering 15.26 %
  • Material and Chemical Engineering 14.35 %
  • Etc.….

So where did the fellowships money go? Granted that the government’s 2009 stimulus budget reduced the funding for the three granting councils by $147.9 million over 3 years. But Budget 2010 increased funding by $32 million per year, and Budget 2011 increased it by $37 million, $15 million of which is going to NSERC.

Could the NSERC PDFs be “collateral damage” resulting from the “new and prestigious” Banting postdoctoral fellowships introduced in the  2009 budget at the rate of $45-million over five years? Could it be that these 140 two-year fellowships valued at $70,000 annually, and supposedly designed to “attract top-level talent to Canada”, incentivized  NSERC to get out of the “regular postdoc” business?

Another possible answer may come from NSERC’s newly reported emphasis on supporting “Industrial postdoctoral fellowships”. Indeed, a recent issue of Contact advertises industrial postdoctoral fellowships in the Maritimes.  NSERC and the government of Newfoundland will each contribute 30K for postdoctoral fellows who will be earning 70K each, in order to work as a full-time employee for a company that will be contributing (a whopping) 10K to the salary.

It has also been reported that non-successful candidates for NSERC’s PDFs have been  receiving letters from NSERC officials encouraging them to apply for industrial PDFs, once they have secured an industrial partner. (Please send me a copy of such a letter if you have it).

Now, in view of the current scarcity of academic positions, there is undoubtedly ample room for policies that try to connect university graduates with private sector jobs.  Indeed, Canadian universities granted 4,800 doctorate degrees in 2007, the highest number recorded, and there were approximately 6000 postdoctoral fellows. Still Canadian universities hired just 2,616 new full time university teachers that year, making it clear that the majority of PDF will not be entering into academic positions.

But then, “Piece of Mind” also received the following email:  As a member of one of the PGS/PDF evaluation committees, I was shocked by the tiny number of PGS and PDF awards given in my discipline. The committee was charged with ranking all the applications, and this task was carried out very rationally and thoughtfully. But we knew that the actual cut-off between funded/not funded would be determined by NSERC staff. It was dismaying to discover that many of the applicants that we had tacitly assumed had a very good chance of being funded were in fact well below the eventual cut-off.

So the question here is, who is playing God with the careers of Canada’s young scientists? And does whomever on NSERC’s staff is currently playing this role, ever wonder how many of Canada’s promising future scientific and academic careers have been jeopardized by a cut that had gone too far?

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12 Responses to NSERC’s scholarships and fellowships: Policy shift or collateral damage?

  1. stevenhamblin says:

    Whelp, NSERC told me to bugger off when I applied for a PDF, but Australia gave me twice what I would have earned here, so … off to the land down under!

  2. moechan says:

    Canada is seen in the eye of European and American academics to be in need of mathematicians. But the policies followed in Canada nowadays do not serve at all this need. My friend came to canada with the hope to build a nice future in mathematical research but we wasted all our time on paper work that never ended. Canada should think about its researchers in math before they leave to another countries to put bread on the table…

  3. Ivan says:

    I feel like a call to action is missing at the end of this post.
    What can Canadians do to reverse the change?

  4. Casteels says:

    Thanks for addressing this! I think it may be worth noting that while there are 70 Banting post-docs awarded annually now, according to the Banting website only 1/3 of those are given by NSERC. So the funding drop for post-docs is still quite steep, especially considering that some of the Banting fellowships will be awarded to non-Canadians.

    By the way, I wonder how many Canadian industries are in need of an expert in homological algebra or analytic number theory?

  5. Associate Chair Graduate Studies says:

    We’ve noticed. In response to a query about the PDF numbers, which we ascertained from anecdotal evidence locally and before the data was posted on the web, we were told by an NSERC program officer that last year they had more uptake than usual on PDF’s and, that it being a two-year program there was “considerable competition” this year. I was willing to believe that until the numbers came out on the web. With less than a 10% chance of getting a PDF award, I think they are better off to scrap the whole program, given the work involved all around. If things don’t improve next year, I won’t encourage my people to waste their time.

    As for the Industrial awards, yes NSERC falls all over themselves offering these to students who don’t get a “real” PDF award. The problem is that many companies have no interest what-so-ever in participating in the program. I spent considerable time trying to convince (OK, begging really) a friend who works at a multi-national company in Canada to take one of my students through this program, but to no avail. The company didn’t want the hassle of the reporting issues and there there were liability concerns and internal rules about needing to pay benefits, for which there was no budget. The only companies I’ve seen keen to get involved are those that very small, and frankly, in most cases would be a dead-end for a good PhD in my field. This is yet another example of government bureaucrats pissing away money on programs that no one wants, not even the target benefit group.

    I’ve lost all faith in NSERC to make any of the right choices.

  6. NSERC offered fewer CGS-PGS awards in 2011 for two reasons:

    First, the Government of Canada’s Economic Action Plan (EAP) came to an end, which had provided an additional 400 CGS master’s-level awards in the 2009 and 2010 competitions, and an additional 200 doctoral-level awards in 2009. With the conclusion of the EAP, the number of available awards reverted to the 2008 baseline.

    Second, NSERC discontinued its past practice of offering more awards than its budget allowed for in anticipation that some awards would be declined. Instead, NSERC offered the exact number of awards provided for in the CGS and PGS budgets in March, then offered additional awards in June once the number of declined offers was known. NSERC currently supports 3,834 graduate students, including the 1,703 CGS-PGS awards offered this year.

    Fewer PDF awards were available this year because a higher-than-average number was taken up in 2010. That higher acceptance rate left a smaller proportion of the budget available to 2011 applicants. NSERC is projecting expenditures of $16.258M for PDFs in 2011-12, plus $1.61M for the Banting PDFs. This is consistent with expenditures in recent years:
    2010 – $17.001M (when more awards were accepted)
    2009 – $16.376M
    2008 – $15.443M
    2007 – $15.196M

    As with the CGS-PGS awards, NSERC also offered only the number of PDF awards allowed by the program budget in March, followed by additional awards offered in June after the number of declined offers was known.

    Leaving out the one-time injection of CGS funding under the EAP, NSERC has maintained its overall expenditures for Scholarship & Fellowship (S&F) programs in 2011 relative to 2010. Some reassignment has taken place to manage pressures within the S&F suite of programs – for instance, increasing the funding available for Industrial Postgraduate Scholarships and the CREATE program.

    A package of statistics for the 2011 scholarships and fellowships competitions has been posted on NSERC’s Web site at http://nserc-crsng.gc.ca/_doc/Students-Etudiants/CompStat-StatConcours_eng.pdf.

    For a number of years, NSERC has sent letters to PDF applicants who are above the quality line but did not receive an award, encouraging them to consider Industrial R&D Fellowships (IRDF). Many doctoral graduates will find employment outside academia, and IRDFs offer another way for applicants to gain valuable experience and work opportunities.

    The role of selection committee members reviewing S&F applications is to rate applications, and to rank them based on quality. Those applicants at top of the order are offered a CGS, the next tier are offered a PGS, and we continue down the list until we reach the budget’s limit. Awards are distributed in proportion to the number of applications received by each of the various selection committees. This ensures the same success rate is seen across all fields.

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