Karel Casteels: NSERC’s numbers on PDFs don’t add up!

“Apres moi le deluge?”. Not so for Governor General’s Gold Medalist Scholar, Karel Casteels, who was the one who alerted us to the dramatic drop in NSERC’s graduate and postgraduate fellowships. He wrote then:  “I recently finished my own PhD. I was rejected for a PDF in the 2009 competition, but fortunately I was able to find a good postdoc in the US (ironically one more prestigious and much better paying than an NSERC PDF). However I have many friends still in grad school, some of whom were denied an NSERC PDF this past year, and so for their sakes, I felt it important to bring this whole matter to your (and other’s) attention.”

Now that Karel saw NSERC’s response, he did more digging and here is what he found out!

Guest Blog post by Karel Casteels

I have several reservations about NSERC’s official response to the precipitous decline in scholarships and fellowships this year. In view of the Harper Government’s continuing efforts to ignore or suppress scientific views that are contrary to their beliefs, it’s natural to be cynical of any government response these days. However, in this post I will try to put philosophical differences aside and focus on the problems I find with NSERC’s arithmetic.

All of my cited statistics were obtained from official NSERC documents here and here (in particular, see Table 36). It should be noted that it is somewhat unclear what the numbers in those tables refer to. It seems possible that they actually are the number of awards that were offered, and not necessarily the number of awards that were actually accepted. If true, the numbers are then possibly inflated and therefore misleading. It might then be useful for NSERC to publish the actual number of acceptances so we can see that the apparent drop in funding isn’t as steep as it seems.

For the remainder of this post, I will assume that NSERC has been honest in the past, so that all the numbers in those tables correspond to the actual number of funded students and postdocs. The third footnote to those tables indicates that, at least in some years, this was the case.

NSERC offered fewer CGS-PGS awards in 2011 for two reasons:

First, the Government of Canada’s Economic Action Plan (EAP) came to an end, which had provided an additional 400 CGS master’s-level awards in the 2009 and 2010 competitions, and an additional 200 doctoral-level awards in 2009. With the conclusion of the EAP, the number of available awards reverted to the 2008 baseline.

In 2008, 2354 new PGS’s were awarded, yet this year 1704 were awarded, a difference of 650. I suppose the problem here is that “baseline” is left undefined. Perhaps NSERC can tell us how the “baseline” was calculated. Note that by total number of scholarships awarded, NSERC has reverted back to levels last seen in 2001 when the NSERC budget was less than 60% of its current size.

Second, NSERC discontinued its past practice of offering more awards than its budget allowed for in anticipation that some awards would be declined. Instead, NSERC offered the exact number of awards provided for in the CGS and PGS budgets in March, then offered additional awards in June once the number of declined offers was known.

Are they implying that last year the old policy resulted in 416 acceptances above their estimates (2520 total awards, minus 400 from the EAP, minus 1704  “baseline” awards)? Does this explain the difference of 650 in 2008? This is possible, but I have a very hard time believing that NSERC had been consistently making such wildly inaccurate predictions that the new policy, if in place in the past, would have resulted in significantly less awards.

Fewer PDF awards were available this year because a higher-than-average number was taken up in 2010. That higher acceptance rate left a smaller proportion of the budget available to 2011 applicants. NSERC is projecting expenditures of $16.258M for PDFs in 2011-12, plus $1.61M for the Banting PDFs. This is consistent with expenditures in recent years:
2010 – $17.001M (when more awards were accepted)
2009 – $16.376M
2008 – $15.443M
2007 – $15.196M

As with the CGS-PGS awards, NSERC also offered only the number of PDF awards allowed by the program budget in March, followed by additional awards offered in June after the number of declined offers was known.

NSERC seems to calculate its PDF expenditures in a curious way. For example, in 2008/09, NSERC supported approximately 500 PDF’s at $40,000 each. How can the expenditure for that year then be so much less than $20M? Looking back through the statistics of the past 10 years, it seems the method was used consistently, i.e., reported PDF expenditures have  always been ~$3-5M less than what one would think.  Clearly there is some accounting trick that I don’t understand. Now let’s look at this year’s numbers. The 286 PDFs awarded in 2010 together with the 133 awarded this year total 419 funded PDFs in 2011/12, which should cost NSERC $16.76M. This is now just slightly more than NSERC’s projection. Moreover, 23 Banting Fellowships at $70,000 is indeed about $1.6M. So what happened to the accounting trick? If it’s no longer used, then fine, but it then seems rather inappropriate to compare the 2011/12 expenditure projection to past years.

By total number of funded PDFs in a year, NSERC has supported at minimum 449 every year since 1997 (and most years many more), when the total NSERC budget was less than 45% of its current size. Well, since the PDF budget hasn’t been cut, and since the more than expected acceptances in 2010 resulted in less offers this year, it stands to reason that the number of PDF’s will go up significantly next year. Can NSERC give a preliminary estimate on how many new PDF’s they expect to fund in 2012?

Leaving out the one-time injection of CGS funding under the EAP, NSERC has maintained its overall expenditures for Scholarship & Fellowship (S&F) programs in 2011 relative to 2010. Some reassignment has taken place to manage pressures within the S&F suite of programs – for instance, increasing the funding available for Industrial Postgraduate Scholarships and the CREATE program.

I suspect that this last sentence is actually the key insight into the drop in numbers. Of course NSERC has the right to make such a decision, regardless of how short-sighted it may seem to us on the less-immediately-profitable side of research. What NSERC does not have a right to do, however, is obfuscate and mislead. I hope they will clarify their numbers.

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4 Responses to Karel Casteels: NSERC’s numbers on PDFs don’t add up!

  1. The numbers of scholarships and fellowships cited in Table 36 and elsewhere in the Facts and Figures section of NSERC’s Web site [http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/NSERC-CRSNG/FactsFigures-TableauxDetailles_eng.asp] reflect awards that have been offered. Students and fellows can accept or decline award offers as late as January of the year following the competition. Some awards are terminated early for a variety of reasons, such as students completing their degree early. The number of active awards therefore fluctuates throughout the year. With the goal of providing the community with competition information as early as possible, NSERC publishes its statistics based on the awards offered in March of each year, and does not update the tables during the year.

    On the other hand, expenditures data reflects the total spent as of the end of a given fiscal year (March 31). Taking these figures and dividing by the value of the awards will not result in an accurate calculation of the total number of awards. For example, early termination results in prorating the value of an award for its actual tenure. The tables are intended to provide a simple overview of the data. Also, expenditures can include multiple programs, some of which may have been discontinued but still have active awards. These factors are identified in the footnotes for each table.

    The number of postgraduate scholarships initially offered in 2011 was based on NSERC’s new practice of no longer offering more awards than its budget allowed for in anticipation that some awards would be declined. As stated in a previous response [https://nghoussoub.com/2011/07/26/nserc-explains-the-drop-in-2011-cgs-pgs-and-pdf-numbers/#more-4130], NSERC offered the exact number of awards provided for in the CGS and PGS budgets in March, then offered additional awards in June once the number of declined offers was known. This means the 2011 data will appear to show a reduction in the number of awards if compared directly to previous years. When NSERC publishes its next series of tables, this change will be noted in Table 36. The reduction in postgraduate scholarships was largely due to the fact that 600 additional CGS awards (400 master’s and 200 doctoral) provided under the Economic Action Plan (EAP) were no longer available, in addition to shifting a part of the PGS budget to the CREATE program. Note that the 2008 baseline referred to in NSERC’s previous response referred to the CGS program and not the PGS program. While the CGS and PGS programs are administered jointly, they have separate budgets.

    Of the 286 Postdoctoral Fellowships (PDF) offered in 2010, when the acceptance rate was unusually high, about 264 are currently active. If budgets remain stable, NSERC would expect the total number of PDFs supported in a given year to also remain stable.

  2. Pingback: “CREATE”, Command and Control | Piece of Mind

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  4. Sarah says:

    It would be nice if NSERC published the total funding for available for new PGS, CGS, and PDF awards for each year as well as the number of new positions they are planning to award in each category. With this information we could see the variation in funding for new awards from year to year.

    I know that it has been a while since this post was made, but because awards season is again approaching, I felt the need to comment.

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