“I’m in Ottawa at the moment at the NSERC Discovery Grant competition – it’s particularly disturbing,” wrote one colleague from engineering, confirming again that the budget pressure on NSERC’s Discovery Grant (DG) program is becoming untenable. Another Evaluation Group (EG) foolishly decided to take matters into its own hands, and asked to be bailed out by co-disciplinary grantees in different programs. It looks like some of our non-enlightened colleagues now think that poaching would address the question of sustainability of Canada’s capacity in scientific research. Budget 2014, however, is bringing with it some much-needed respite for NSERC’s marquee program. The question now is whether the government’s directives are strong and clear enough to get NSERC’s leadership to do the right thing immediately, so as to shore up the shortfalls in this year’s DG competition.
The funding for the NSERC’s Discovery grant program has been eroding for the past 7 years. First, came the 2009 forgettable budget cuts to the three councils, and then followed the mandated (was it?) hemorrhaging of funds from basic research towards the Research Partnership Programs (RPP). The NY Times seems to report more on Canada’s debate about these issues than on Canada’s polarized political landscape.
The chair of one of the Evaluation Groups (EG) wrote to elaborate on another factor that is compounding the budgetary pressure. “Our discipline is attracting excellent mid career researchers from abroad. This is, of course, something to be celebrated and encouraged, but, since these first time applicants bring no money to the competition it does produce budgetary problems.”
Indeed, the number of DG applicants keeps on climbing: From 3300 in 2010, to 3482 in 2011, to 3900 applicants for the 2012 competition, and more than 4,000 in 2013, including 700 first-time applicants. The number for the 2014 competition will undoubtedly top that. The net result of the DG budget freeze is that the success rate has plummeted (from 79.7% in 2001 to 57.7% in 2011). The average grants followed suite (from $37,578 to $33,691 in 2011). We are still awaiting NSERC’s facts and figures for 2012/13.
As I had mentioned in a previous post, the government seems to have decided to reverse the trends of years past and stop the hemorrhaging. Indeed, Budget 2014 has assigned $15-million of unrestricted new funds to NSERC. And for the very first time in years, the government refrained from directing NSERC into investing these funds in research partnerships with the industrial sector.
What makes the hint even stronger is the government’s bold statement about the industrial postdoctoral program. “NSERC will phase out its Industrial R&D Fellowship Program (NSERC Industrial postdocs) and Mitacs will become the exclusive delivery agency for federal industrial postdocs.”
But more importantly for this post, Budget 2014 states explicitly that, “NSERC will keep the funds from its industrial postdoc program and the budget suggests these be redirected towards basic research.”
These funds amount to $4-million per year which, once added to the new unrestricted $15-million addition to NSERC’s budget, mean that $19-million can be made available immediately to this year’s discovery grant competition. That’s an overdue and welcome increase of 5 to 6% to the DG program.
Keep in mind that NSERC and the other research councils have a relative autonomy in disbursing their funding allocations, which means that the government’s directions are not necessarily strict instructions. Plus, NSERC could choose to delay or prolong the phase-out of its industrial postdoc program, hence delaying the injection of funds into the DG program.
That’s why we need to be loud and clear in asking the NSERC leadership to do the right thing and shore up the Discovery Grant program immediately as Canada’s research community has been advocating for years now. The Government of Canada seems to have listened. Will NSERC?