The Physicists debate “the changing role of NSERC’s Discovery program”

First, came the editorial of University of Ottawa Physicist, Béla Joós in last July’s issue of “Physics in Canada”. There, he zeroed in on the heart of the matter, which if you think about it, is mind boggling: “Over the last two years, the Discovery Grant Program (DGP) has been changing, not only the way in which grants are allocated but also in its mission statement.” How could this cataclysmic shift happen under the very nose of Canada’s scientific community and who is responsible for it? In his extremely lucid editorial (the best analysis I’ve seen so far on the issue), he declares, “it is time to rise to the defence of the DGP.” Today, the following open letter to NSERC’s President Suzanne Fortier, by a group of prominent physicists and astronomers, also appeared in the journal “Physics in Canada”. Most of the signatories are past chairs of Grant selection committees, and all are well versed in the complexities of grant selection procedures in Canada and elsewhere. When a “system produces a decline in both fairness and trust”, all decent and serious scientists in the country feel it simultaneously. You are not alone!

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3 Responses to The Physicists debate “the changing role of NSERC’s Discovery program”

  1. Phil Hultin says:

    The physicists have re-iterated the point that we all have been trying to get across, and they have done it very well. Nevertheless, I do not expect this or any other statement of concern will have the slightest impact on NSERC or on its political masters. The whole issue is ideology after all – giving broad based support to science is contrary to the Friedmanesque model for society that the government is imposing.

    Whereas many scientists traditionally have assumed that one of NSERC’s functions is to represent the scientific community to government, I think it is fair to say that today, NSERC’s leadership believes that its job is to represent the government to the scientific community. We cannot look to NSERC for sympathy or support. The only way to get any change is through politics and even then success is by no means assured. None of the Canadian political parties has shown any sign of understanding the role of science in society, after all.

  2. Robert Bridson says:

    I fully agree there’s a serious issue with the fact the total DG program budget has not kept up with the times. Obviously this has the implication that either awards go down or the success rate goes down. This is a terrible, shortsighted, error in investing for the nation’s future on the part of the government.

    However, I would say from my own first-hand experience in Computer Science, apart from the reality of dealing with the budget, there is no pressure to reduce success rate at the NSERC level. If anything, there is moderate pressure from NSERC to maintain a historically reasonable success rate (and above all, stay consistent and fair). In fact, perhaps there’s even particular encouragement for a good ECR success rate — along with extra money this year for ECR’s beyond the regular bin amount.

    I do get the impression the different disciplines / EG’s may have drastically different approaches to the process. That’s probably not good for Canada as a whole (though it makes me glad to be computer scientist!), and I think has considerably muddied the waters as to what is actual NSERC policy vs. the norms of a particular group….

  3. Jeriyco says:

    Speaking as a relatively new academic who has both American and Canadian citizenship, and who had job offers both in Canada and the US, I can say that the Discovery Grant system played a major role in choosing to come to UBC rather than higher ranked school in the US. My recent experience (i renewed my grant last year) with NSERC has completely changed my mind. Discovery grants were always relatively small, but the relative stability of the program was what made it effectively the most efficient research grant program in the world,according to the review of the program in 2007 or thereabouts. The recent changes have made it difficult to capitalize on the research momentum I have built up over my first 5-year cycle, and I certainly don’t have confidence that funding will be stable going forward. The system needs to change. I used to feel a great sense of pride in the NSERC model, but the current behavior seems to me to be arbitrary, short-sighted and politically motivated to a degree that is frankly astounding, considering the formerly ethical, professional and independent way in which decisions used to be made. My former pride has quickly turned to distain and disappointment. The NSERC system needs to be restored, and the Discovery Grants should be made the focus of the program going forward. That will train more students and produce much more high quality science.

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