Dirigisme: Research prioritization and funds reallocation … by staff

Last December, during a lively public debate with Isabelle Blain, NSERC’s Vice-President for Research Grants & Scholarships, my colleague Martin tried to bring a positive note to the conversation by stating that at least NSERC’s new ways are not as bad as those of its counterpart in the UK, the “Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council” (EPSRC). Now that I read the latest blog post by my old friend Fields medalist and Cambridge Professor, Timothy Gowers, I see that Martin may have been right. Micromanagement of the research enterprise, lack of consultation with the academic community, picking winners and losers in the marketplace of ideas, commissioning then ignoring the findings of international panels, not to mention the grand statements and the bureaucratic jargon used to announce it all –on the internet– to a stunned British scientific community. Canada’s scientists are wary, in spite of a sense of a deja-vu!

Tim writes: “The EPSRC plans to think harder about what research the country actually needs, and therefore what it should be supporting”. It only takes a few seconds of reading to realize that this was the understatement of the year.

He then claims that this is “just one example of a world-wide phenomenon.” A Canadian colleague wrote that this is mainly confined to “granting councils that are run by career bureaucrats who ….”. The rest is not fit to print so I won’t!

But, what’s the problem? Here is an illustrative example from the EPSRC document: Applied probability will be “grown” in the UK, and all remaining areas of mathematics are to be “under review”. This will be done by concentration of resources. 

It is ironic that this EPSRC edict came on the heels of a report of the International Review of Mathematics commissioned by EPSRC themselves that urged them to maintain the diversity of British mathematics, in all three senses (geographical, by subject area, and by type of institution). A twist that is too familiar to Canada’s scientific researchers, who are still astonished by how an international review of their discovery grants program, was conveniently interpreted and used by NSERC staff to deconstruct — and some say to break— a peer-review system that was widely appreciated.

The new world-wide phenomenon that Tim is alluding to, must be the new “dirigisme” in shaping research, realigning science and engineering to commercial sectors, and   reallocating resources accordingly, while promising the “delivery of impact for the health, prosperity and sustainability of the nation and the world.” All led by career bureaucrats, in the name of driving and accelerating a change agenda – often (but not always) requested by politicians that are too eager to be seen as agents of change.

To counter this new bureaucratic dirigisme, there is a pressing need throughout the scientific enterprise to create a platform for communities of researchers to jointly articulate a vision for their research efforts, to devise a strategy for achieving this vision, and to be accountable for this vision by the public, by government, and by funding agencies. Without this platform, research policy is set by administrative demands: in some cases directly, by responding to government priorities with new or targeted funding, and in many instances indirectly, by changes in administrative details.

Let’s take a look at decision-making and the accountability chain in our own NSERC. First, one notices that NSERC is overseen by a Council. The problem is that it is only an Advisory Council, quite far from exercising the oversight that a Board of Directors (or Trustees, or Governors) normally does. Recent discussions and emails exchanged with  some members of that Council suggest that it is even “less advisory” than one would assume. Then, you have the “Evaluation Groups” whose work is sometimes so disregarded, that they, in frustration,  are led to write open letters of dissatisfaction with the system. And let’s not forget the “EG Executives and Chairs”, undoubtedly well-meaning, sometimes inexperienced and naive, but often hand-picked for their precious abilities to conform and compromise.

In the past and until its termination in 2003, NSERC’s re-allocations exercise served as a platform for the research communities to jointly articulate a vision and to devise a strategy for achieving it. In a recent letter, NSERC’s president Suzanne Fortier wrote: “The distribution of funds to the 12 EGs (Evaluation Groups) is a complex issue. In the past, the reallocation exercises served as a tool to predict future trends across disciplines and how budgets might be redistributed in response to these assessments”…”Although the reallocation Exercise served to inform the distribution of funds to disciplines, it was determined to be very demanding with limited return, and neither NSERC nor the community was in favour of continuing it”.

So, what solution was devised instead? NSERC replaced a community driven transparent system with staff driven re-allocations. In spite of declarations to the contrary, re-allocations between disciplines and between envelopes are happening at NSERC. They just have a different name for it, such as “managing budgetary pressures”. It is ironic that the extensive community-driven re-allocation exercise used to have a 10% cap on re-allocated funds, while the new norm is boundless power by staff.

Suzanne Fortier writes: “We have recently sought the advice of the Council of Canadian Academics (CCA) to highlight indicators and metrics that are relevant to budget allocations.”  Is that it? “to highlight indicators and metrics? An incredibly vague mandate that will certainly not prevent staff from interpreting and using the CCA findings in any which way they choose.

Is NSERC staff looking at capturing the positives of the terminated re-allocation exercise? True it ultimately failed to have a major impact on funding changes. But it was very successful at encouraging visionary thinking from scientific disciplines, and in engaging the scientific community in innovative proposals for research. It created a structure which encouraged researchers to develop new research collaborations, within and across disciplines. Inter-disciplinary research is essential for many of today’s most pressing scientific problems, but inter-disciplinary research needs to rest on strong disciplinary foundations.

Canada has a strong and vibrant network of communities, often anchored by one or more national societies, and researchers in these communities are eager to have input into science policy and scientific directions.  The National Science Foundation in the US provides an excellent example of such a platform: Scientists are seconded from universities precisely to provide scientific directions for their disciplines, and to engage in discussions across disciplines on important scientific challenges.

An important consequence of this community-based input is the increased flexibility in addressing different disciplinary agendas in different ways.  For example, the mathematics community in Canada has long had a policy of building research capacity in small universities by ensuring that excellent researchers in these areas were funded, often with small grants that reflected their need for funds, the importance of research for the pipeline of graduate students, and the importance of building nascent research capacity in the centers of the future.

This community-supported and time-tested policy was ended by administrative decision at NSERC, without any evidence that NSERC staff realized the long-term policy implications of this decision.

We have often called for the creation of appropriate vehicles that will allow various core disciplines to:

  • Develop long-term vision.
  • Develop national strategies for research that nurture nascent centers besides consolidating traditional ones.
  • Look for other opportunities to leverage national resources, albeit industrial, regional or international.
  • Think through and adopt appropriate discipline-specific research structures and funding mechanisms most suitable for an optimal outcome.

The good news is that the tide may be turning, ever so slightly. Again, looking at our Bristish counterparts,  “the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has agreed to reassess its membership to make sure the views of academics are adequately represented. The pledge comes in the council’s response to the Commons Science and Technology Committee’s report on astronomy and particle physics.

The report, published in May, highlighted academic physicists’ dissatisfaction with the perceived failure of the STFC and its chief executive, Keith Mason, to promote basic science as much as other parts of its remit.

The committee suggests that researchers’ trust could be won back by ensuring that at least 50 per cent of STFC council members are practicing academics.”

Finally, let me conclude this –longer than usual– post (sorry!) just as Tim did: “Enough for now. I’d better get back to implementing my enhanced evidence-based strategic thematic impact capability landscape delivery outcomes plan agenda work.”

This entry was posted in Op-eds, R&D Policy. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Dirigisme: Research prioritization and funds reallocation … by staff

  1. Pingback: Weekly Picks « Mathblogging.org — the Blog

  2. WIEBMOF says:

    It is naive to believe there is a “one size fits all” model, even within mathematics. Some areas of mathematics are closer to engineering and other areas are closer to the humanities, in terms of activity. Moreover, outside of mathematics, a great deal of science is experimentally based, which is somewhat different than math. NSERC should recognize and promote this diversity. It should recognize different expectations and norms across different disciplines as well as universities and act accordingly. In fact, the only visible sign that NSERC acknowledges mathematics on its website, is an image of basic Calculus on a chalkboard in one of its sections (for Professors).

    The chalkboard with Calculus illustrates the dual role of mathematics: i) pass on very specialized knowledge much developed many years ago, and ii) to contribute to new knowledge. For instance, much of the undergraduate curriculum was developed over a hundred years ago (albeit still difficult to master or advance as many students will attest). But this is really no different than many areas in the humanities for instance, which are funded through SSHRC. Moreover, math itself has clearly demonstrated an applicability in a variety of engineering and technological situations, of which any recent Calculus (and many other) textbooks will furnish innumerable examples. In fact, the economic impact of Calculus and much of mathematics is greatly underestimated due to the fact that most mathematical theorems and structures do not generate revenue in an industrial or private context, as they are neither copyright (like books and music) nor patented (like electronics). Mathematics exists as a good example of a public good, with a wide impact on industrial production.

    But much of mathematics was not developed from a utilitarian point of view, of which NSERC seems to favour. By insisting on a utilitarian point of view, NSERC denies the role that fundamental research has played, even within a utilitarian context. For instance, Boolean logic, which underlies our technological age was developed from an inquisitive point of view. Despite the wide applicability of Boolean logic in underlying digital electronics (including computers), Boole entitled his treatise on logic “An Investigation of The Laws of Thought”, a work which could only exist within an academic envrionment. It would be difficult to believe either that Boole could have envisioned the applicability of his work, nor that a grant application on the “Laws of Thought” would go through NSERC in this age, but ironically, without Boole, this age may not exist.

  3. Pingback: “Keeping a single rioter in jail is equivalent to what? Two postdocs?” | Piece of Mind

  4. warcode says:

    The breadth and importance of mathematics has always been known . . . to mathematicians.

    A fun game: using the Google Image search (http://www.google.com/imghp), check out results for the following five searches, in this order:


    Okay, maybe not so fun.

  5. Pingback: UK mathematicians unload on intransigent patronizing bureaucracy | Piece of Mind

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