NSERC introduced in 2009 a new “binning” system to the review process in the Discovery Grant program. The program’s success rate has been on a downward spiral since — from 71 per cent in 2008 to 64 per cent in 2009 and falling to a record-low level of 58 per cent this year.
The number of appeals rose from 122 in 2008 to 223 in 2009 to 224 in 2010. The number of successful appeals, however, remains in the 20’s, with the exception of 2009, a transition year that left NSERC scrambling. NSERC’s website states that the rate of success of appeals is less than 25%. It is actually half of that.
According to Isabelle Blain, NSERC’s VP for Research Grants & Scholarships: “In 2010, 72 per cent of applicants holding a grant at the time of application were successful in obtaining a grant. Those who did not have a current grant had a lower level of success”.
The history of these changes goes as follows: In 2007, NSERC asked an international panel of experts to review its DG program. The panel found that the program was exceptionally effective in international comparison and in “maintaining a diversified base of high quality research capability in Canadian universities.”
Moreover, and probably anticipating NSERC’s plans, the panel warned the agency that “any significant intentional reduction in the DGP success rate…would result in reduced research support in the smaller provinces and in small institutions.”
NSERC went ahead and changed the review system, the net result of which being a significant drop in the success rate and a sour mood at many smaller institutions that are feeling disenfranchised by the system.
In addition, an internal program review also initiated by NSERC in 2007 concluded that the DG program funding was insufficient to match the increasing numbers of university researchers hired over the past decade, while the average discovery grant had not kept pace with inflation.
According to Blain: “The total number of Discovery Grants held at a given time is another important statistic to keep in mind. This figure rose steadily for much of the past decade, from 7,886 in 2001 to a high of 10,340 in 2008. It currently stands at 9,948, still well above historic averages”.