You are not alone!

Yet, that’s exactly what bureaucrats want you to feel. “You are the only one complaining. You are isolating your community…”. That’s what they said when 336 mathematical scientists, 27 Canada Research Chairs and 35 fellows of the Royal Society of Canada wrote NSERC’s President about the flaws in the new system at Discovery.  The Astronomy community also wrote and  they were met with the same “Everybody loves it! Stop complaining, it’s you not us”.  That’s what the physicists, who are writing next week (stay tuned) will hear. And  that’s what UBC’s computer scientists and engineers will be told after their forum  (next Monday) on NSERC’s new ways.  There is nothing further from the truth, because when a system produces “a decline in both fairness and trust” (as the Physicists will be saying), all decent and serious scientists in the country feel it, if  not react to it, simultaneously. You are not alone!

Bureaucrats sometimes bring their own statistics to show you that you are “alone”.  Last summer, it was reported that in a quite provocative and still embargoed  presentation to the CMS membership (see below), NSERC’s President, Suzanne Fortier, asserted that 90% of the Evaluation Group (EG) members in the first two years thought that the new system (for NSERC’s Discovery Grants) worked better than the old system. Yet by last year, at least on EG 1508, 60% of the EG signed an open letter to NSERC’s President expressing serious concern about the outcome of the 2011 competition.

Keep in mind that you can be framed to be alone, even when they admit that “only” 80% of scientists were happy with the previous system, hence the need to scrap it and implement a new one.

And good luck asking for the number of appeals that NSERC received after last year’s competition. How many were approved? How many denied? So much for Minister Tony Clement’s call for federal government transparency. The colleague who extracted the numbers for the DG 201o competition likened it to experiences reported from the offices of 19th century dentists.  This year’s numbers surely dwarf the preceding one, and extracting them from NSERC cannot be for the faint of heart. Why? because you are supposed to feel that you are “alone” in appealing!

And have you heard, O spirited descendants of Euclid and Pythagoras that

— you are “alone” in having your success rates out of line with other disciplines.

–the members of your Evaluation Group are “alone” in practicing `bin’ grade inflation.

–You are “alone in failure” because your discipline has 9.5% of the Discovery Grant holders, but only 5.4% of the CRCs

All these statements (and more) were reported to have been made last summer  in a public powerpoint presentation by NSERC’s President, Suzanne Fortier, to the Canadian Mathematical Society in Edmonton. We are told that the Long Range Plan (LRP) Committee has eventually received a copy of that presentation but has been instructed to not release it to the public. What gives?

Stay tuned for an upcoming series of blogposts, where various guest bloggers will show you that … You are not alone!

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7 Responses to You are not alone!

  1. Guess who else isn’t alone? Thanks as always for raising this issue, it’s extremely important to show how the sciences and mathematics are not in fact having a better time of it than other areas. Those of us in Social Science and Humanities have also experienced funding cuts, but there is often an assumption that “science” areas must be doing better. In reality the trend is towards supporting certain specific *areas* of research, rather than entire academic disciplines, and those areas are relatively narrow. E.g. the Canada Excellence Research Chairs competition which included “environmental sciences and technologies, natural resources and energy, health and related life sciences and technologies, and information and communications technologies”. It sounds encompassing but actually isn’t particularly inclusive, and it’s targeted at “national priorities”. Similarly I’m assuming that within NSERC (from what I’ve read in your blog so far) certain kinds of projects will be flourishing because they can be connected to marketable objectives.

    Please keep up the good work with reporting on the details of NSERC’s changes and their effects. It’s much appreciated!

  2. Ghoussoub says:

    Thanks Melonie and yes I will continue reporting on NSERC’s changes and their effects. I am personally astonished by the (non)-reaction the various scientific communities are getting from the Tri-council leadership. Past ones also had to deal with the occasional divergence in point of view with the communities they serve, but they did so with an open mind, admirable professionalism and by reaching out. Here we are told that the style and attitude vis-a-vis divergence (even the most constructive one) is different and that most of the “reaching out” is happening towards government, not even their own advisory councils. A different style I guess, but Canada’s scientific research may be paying for that for years to come.

  3. Phil Hultin says:

    Thanks for the bracing message! The Chemists also got some similar responses from an NSERC VP (who shall remain un-named here) in an informal session at the 2011 Canadian Society for Chemistry meeting. The message there was rather personal: the reason that the success rates at “large” universities are higher than at “medium” universities which in turn are higher than at “small” universities is because “the large schools have more selective hiring practices”.

    So not only was I told I was alone, but also that I deserved to be cut off because as a faculty member at a second-tier university I must be a lousy scientist – but I shouldn’t feel bad because at least I am probably better than those losers at tiny little school X.

  4. Pingback: Grade inflation, instability and uncertainty in Discovery Grant competitions | Piece of Mind

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