Is the NSERC leadership bleeding its Discovery program even more than what the government is asking them to? Some say that the termination of the Major Resources Support (MRS) and the Research Tools and Instrument (RTI) programs alone translate into a 20% hit on the Discovery program envelope. Others point to a 60% decline in the numbers of academic NSERC postgraduate scholarships in the past 2 years as another re-allocation away from basic research and advanced academic training. The published figures do show a trend, but what is the true extent of the policy shift, and why is it never clearly spelled out in official press releases? The next step is to figure out what the Tri-council presidents will be doing with the reallocated cash. But whatever they do, we surely hope that they will at least level with the research community.
We all know the story by now. The federal government reduced the Tri-council operating budget by $37-million in each of the next three years. On the other hand, each council was allowed to keep their piece of the 2012-13 projected cut, as long as they re-allocate it to “partnership” programs. At least 2 out of the 3 Council presidents issued self-congratulatory press releases. The AUCC is happy. University presidents are happy and VP-Research across the country were asked to be happy. A re-allocation surely beats a cut, but what if NSERC is proceeding to re-allocate more than the government decreed $15-million away from basic research and advanced academic training?
NSERC has revealed to the VP-Rs its plan for dealing with the government mandated re-allocation: 1) Terminate the MRS and the RTI programs; 2) Cut the administrative cost by 10%; 3) Share with the 2 other councils a 28% cut to the NCE program.
Then came the following comment from a co-chair of one of the Evaluation Groups. “It is particularly helpful to keep the numbers in mind. The most recent “Facts and Figures” on NSERC’s web site tell us that in 2010-2011 NSERC spent the following: $326.2M Discovery Grants (of which $309.0M is devoted to individual grants), $31.4M on Research Tools and Instruments (RTI), and $35.2M on Major Resources Support (MRS). I read this as a cut of more than 20% in the support for basic research in Canada. This is certainly nothing to crow about. “Disaster” is the operative word here.”
There is definitely something to ponder here. Indeed, even if one factors in that some of the MRS-funded projects (around $5M?) will not be discontinued but simply transfered to other Discovery envelopes, the re-allocated amounts are still high: almost $60M, which amply exceeds the government imposed $45 M$ target in cuts/reallocations over the next 3 years.
But let’s keep in mind that, even though the termination of the RTI program could free up cash immediately (beginning next year), the cuts in the MRS program will have to be phased out over a number of years depending on the duration of the grants, which are already in the pipeline. Still, take a look at the slopes in the following graph starting in the year 2005-06, then include (I was too lazy to do it) an additional $60M cut from the Discovery program over the next 3-4 years. and decide for yourself on where support for basic research is heading.
But the story doesn’t end here. The PDF and doctoral scholarships, which were supposed to be as “protected” as the Discovery grants, are both down about 25% even compared to last year’s already deeply gutted program. Only 98 PDFs out of 1254 applications were awarded this year, which corresponds to an 8% success rate.
Actually, in response to one of our posts, NSERC claimed last year that “if the budget remains stable, NSERC would expect the total number of PDFs supported in a given year to also remain stable”. This should have meant that they were aiming to support approximately 400 (133+264) PDF’s in total each year. It looks however that they are now supporting at most 230 (and perhaps less in view of those from last year who are no longer holding their award).
So what happened then to the 2012 federal budget statement committing that “programming in support of basic research, student scholarships, and industry-related research initiatives and collaborations are preserved”? The answer lies in what NSERC also wrote last year to “Piece of Mind”. “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.” This was also re-iterated in the preamble to the 2012 statistics.
In other words, NSERC has dramatically reduced the number of academic postdoctoral fellowships and doctoral scholarships (by about 170 PDF’s and 217 doctoral students) in order to fund more “Industrial Postgraduate Scholarships,” and more HQPs in the “CREATE program”, which by the way has now added industrial opportunities as of 2012. So technically, the total number of fellowships/scholarships may have been preserved, but if this is not another re-allocation away from advanced and basic academic research, what is?
Still, it is surprising that the “People” graph above has been declining since 2008-09, in spite of the addition of the CERCs, the Bantings and the Vaniers.
According to the following comment sent recently to “Piece of Mind” by one of Canada’s depressingly dispirited researchers, the bleeding is not only real but also widely accepted, even by those who are supposed to protect the integrity of academic research.“What I’ve heard more than once from VP-research and associate Deans (research) when asked about the erosion of basic research funding is that we better stop complaining and change the research that we do.”
Dear colleague: You obviously deserve better leadership at your institution, but I am more interested in knowing what was your own reaction to such a “door-matic” attitude.