NSERC’s Discovery Grants: The numbers by discipline

Many thanks to our colleague David Wehlau, Professor of Mathematics at Queen’s University, for compiling the following data comparing average Discovery Grants, their numbers, as well as the available funding for each of the NSERC-supported disciplines.  The data, which covers the 2008 and 2010 competitions shows an incredible discrepancy between the disciplines. David highlights the plight of the Math/Stats community, but the bottom line is that the total budget for the Discovery Grants has been idle for years, and NSERC has already announced that the support for basic research will be cut by $14.5 million over the next three years. See the 2010–2011 Report on Plans and Priorities and NSERC’s response to our post “Time to draw a line in the sand”.

The data shows that in 2010 the average grant in Mathematics and Statistics ($19,656) is no more than 57% of the  average of non-Math/Stats disciplines ($34,509). Moreover, the average grant in analytical & physical chemistry ($48K in 2010) is more than twice as high as the average in the mathematical sciences. Math & Stats hold about 9.3% of the total NSERC grants, but carry approximately 5.5% of NSERC funding. Here is the spreadsheet.

The problem is that the differences in the “cost of research” between disciplines do not justify these discrepancies, since most of the grants are used nowadays to pay HQPs (not equipment) whose salaries are very comparable. A friend who is a Dean of Science has the following possible explanation.

“Graduate students in chemistry are much more likely to be totally supported by their supervisor’s grant with little or no TA duties; while a math grad student might get a third of the support from the supervisor and then have 6 or 8 hours of TA duties per week. Chemists are almost militant in keeping their grad students on task of their thesis research full time. The results are relatively more research from the lab (a good thing) and relatively less teaching experience and training for the student (a bad thing).

In a sense, the historical funding level has led to different cultures in the support and training of graduate students in different disciplines. I do not see an intrinsic reason why it is good for math students to do more TA work than chemistry students.”

We also have some data –to be published later– showing that other G7 countries may not have as large a relative difference in funding levels between disciplines, which could be further evidence that NSERC has had the balance wrong for years.

But we might be getting ahead of ourselves since, “The Minister of Industry, on behalf of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), asked the Council of Canadian Academies to examine the international practices and supporting evidence used to assess performance of research in the natural sciences and engineering disciplines.”

The panel (chaired by former NSF Director, Rita Colwell) will examine approaches used to evaluate research performance and indicators that enable comparisons across areas of research. It will NOT recommend any re-allocation of funds between disciplines. NSERC staff will!

Indeed, NSERC wrote (see comments) that it “plans to use these indicators, both quantitative and qualitative, to develop a new method of allocating funds among Evaluation Groups that could be implemented in 2013.”

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4 Responses to NSERC’s Discovery Grants: The numbers by discipline

  1. Todd Lowary says:

    I’m not sure where your friend is a Dean of Science. However, in the Chemistry Department in which I am the Associate Chair-Graduate Studies, I can assure that the statement: “Graduate students in chemistry are much more likely to be totally supported by their supervisor’s grant with little or no TA duties…” is categorically false.

    We currently have ~250 graduate students and in the current academic year, more than 210 of them were engaged in teaching, mostly at a load of 12 hours a week (the maximum allowed by the collective agreement between the University and the Graduate Student Association). Of the ~40 that are not teaching, this is because they either have scholarships and choose not to teach (we allow them to do so for extra compensation and for the experience) , or have passed the number of years of TA support we provide (3 years for MSc; 5 years for PhD). None of my colleagues are “are almost militant in keeping their grad students on task of their thesis research full time.”

    Chemistry is an inherently personnel-heavy discipline and, for example, in my area if you don’t have a group of 8-12 students/pdf’s you might as well shut down your lab and go home as you won’t be able to compete at the international level. My sense is that is not the case for other disciplines. In addition, a single member of my research group will spend, on average, $6000-10000/year in consumables, which I would hazard to guess is not the case in, for example, mathematics. Therefore at least for chemistry the statement that cost of research is not an issue “since most of the grants are used nowadays to pay HQPs” is also false

    We can argue about the inequities of average funding levels at NSERC across disciplines, but don’t so on the basis of sweeping generalizations and falsehoods implying an inherent lack of interest in education or teaching by one group. Or, by a lack of understanding of the true demands of a discipline.

    • Ghoussoub says:

      Many thanks for your input on the state of chemistry at UA. That’s exactly what this blog is interested in. Informative and passionate reactions from fellow researchers. One striking fact (not included in the table) is that theoretical physicists and theoretical chemists typically receive much more than mathematicians/statisticians. For example during the past 3 fiscal year the average grant in theoretical physics/chemistry is $47,740. For mathematics/statistics the average grant is $29,144. Note also that after including a comment from a colleague (who is obviously not at UA and who was taking a guess at possible reasons for the discrepancies), I did say that we have to wait and see the outcome of the CCA report. In any case, a quick calculation confirms that on the average DG in Chemistry (even in Chemistry!) are far from sufficient for supporting a senior researcher supervising 8-12 students/pdf… unless of course there are other sources (at least for what you call “consumables”). Another good reason for joining our efforts to increase the budget for DG after years of stagnation.

  2. Pingback: The one-two punch of mathematicians and … upcoming good news | Piece of Mind

  3. Pingback: NSERC Discovery Grants: What do we know about the 2011 Math/Stats competition? | Piece of Mind

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