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 %
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?