NSERC has lost its bearings, but who is responsible?

Canada’s “Natural Science and Engineering Research Council” has grown uncomfortable with the rapidly dwindling success rate in its postdoctoral fellowship programme, the latest having clocked in at 7.8%. So, it has decided to artificially inflate these rates by limiting the number of times young Canadian scholars can apply for such awards to … once. Never mind that the pathetic $40,000 salary (see comments below for corrections) for a highly trained Canadian post-doc hasn’t changed in more than 25 years, young Canadian scientists will now be fighting tooth and nail for the privilege of living on the fringe of the poverty line while trying to jumpstart their research careers. Welcome to Canada’s new lottery system for deciding the future of the nation’s capacity for advanced study and research.

I guess something needed to be done to cover up the fact that NSERC is now awarding 66% fewer fellowships than it did 5 years ago. Last year, we wondered whether the following numbers reflected a policy shift at NSERC or just collateral damage.

  • (2008) 250 awards/ 1169 applicants
  • (2009) 254 awards/ 1220 applicants
  • (2010) 286 awards/ 1341 applicants
  • (2011) 133 awards/ 1431 applicants
  • (2012) 98 awards/ 1254 applicants

These 98 fellowships are to be shared by 20 scientific disciplines and to be split among the 59 PhD-granting Canadian universities. And here is how NSERC responded then.

Many colleagues have already done a good job reporting on this shameful milestone for Canada’s research and post-secondary education. Jim Colliander wonders what would happen if “Canada restricts athlete participation to one Olympic games per lifetime.” A rightfully exasperated David Kent exclaims from his academic exile, “Come on NSERC, really – you’ve completely missed the point…,” which has obviously inspired my title above.

Let me therefore focus on another aspect of the story. Since it is now clear that the dismantlement of academic postdoctoral opportunities is a major policy shift and not just a simple budgetary hick-up nor another moratorium, I think it is high time to ask: who is responsible for this policy shift, and who should be held accountable for its long term impact on the country’s future? Is anyone ready and willing to own this –oh-so-eloquent– piece of decision-making? Is this major policy shift the brainchild of NSERC’s bureaucrats or is it another manifestation of the Harper doctrine?

My guess is that, unless and until the government does something about Recommendation 6 in the Jenkins report, Canada is destined to remain without “a clear federal voice on research and innovation”, and Canadians will continue to be in the dark on fundamental issues of governance and accountability within the granting councils.

But where do the universities stand vis-a-vis this –not very subtle– push by certain federal outlets to do away with the bulk of academic postdoctoral opportunities in the sciences?

Will the AUCC president issue an errata to his latest press release praising the government for “investments (that) will preserve current levels of basic research and scholarships funding?” 

Will university presidents speak up and say that “Government did not get it right,” this time aroundWill they write MP James Rajotte again and ask him to relate to the House of Commons their concerns about “the Government of Canada’s commitment to post-secondary education and research?”

Will anyone of this country’s 40+ university vice-presidents for research raise his/her voice in protest, and make the case for Canada’s future research capacity? Or will they keep trying to legitimize –via bizarre supporting testimonials— questionable NSERC policies regardless how incompatible they are with the wishes and aspirations of the very researchers they are supposed to represent, support and serve.

Will the professional and learned societies finally realize that their mandate goes beyond collecting dues and organizing banquets that young scholars cannot afford anyway?

Will the Royal Society of Canada (Ah! that useless one) commission a report stating loudly and clearly what is so obvious to all of its –distinguished yet so powerless– Fellows?

And will Mr. Goodyear carry David Naylor’s message to Government, that the measure that matters most is “the generation of a succession of home-grown winners of pinnacle research prizes”, starting with our own graduates and not “the new boutique programs or politicized one-offs so beloved by governments” such as the CERC’s ?

And can anyone in Ottawa answer my daughter for me when she asks again, “how can I (and why should I) pursue an academic career in science and engineering when my own government is so determined on dissuading me from doing so?

It surely looks like NSERC has saved its most vicious blow for those who are already down among us. It is imperative that we don’t let it happen.

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15 Responses to NSERC has lost its bearings, but who is responsible?

  1. Xavier says:

    “[…] $40,000 salary for a highly trained Canadian post-doc hasn’t changed in more than 25 years […]”. I was wondering about the stipend level of posdtoc through time. Where did you find the answer?

    40000$ in 1987 worth about 70500$ now (about the stipend of a Banting fellowship) [http://www.bankofcanada.ca/rates/related/inflation-calculator/].

    Those miserable stipend are on top of other issues like tax and the lack of exployee status (in many university, not all). [http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100826/full/news.2010.429.html]

  2. casteels1 says:

    Great post!

    By the way, I found it interesting to discover that out of the seven members of NSERC’s council who hold STEM PhDs, four of them held NSERC PDFs. (The other three all graduated before NSERC existed, although two of them would have been ineligible anyways.)

  3. Philip Hultin says:

    Well said! I have been a member of the NSERC Scholarships Committee for Chemistry for the last two years, and this year I was asked if I would chair. I declined because although I will honor my commitment for three years, I do not want to appear to endorse NSERC’s policies or to have to speak on behalf of NSERC.
    I have seen that the reduction in the budget for scholarships has left a huge proportion of the outstanding candidates who apply without support. I echo the question posed in this blog post : who will publicly accept responsibility for frustrating these talented young Canadians?

  4. Anonymous says:

    J’ai lu avec intérêt votre blog. Je vous propose un correctif : en fait, les bourses postdoctorales du CRSNG étaient de $30 000 pendant (trop) longtemps.
    De plus, j’ai été membre du comité 187 de bourses (MSc, PhD et PDF) du CRSNG en 2005-2008. Les deux premières années, nous pouvions ‘échanger’ 2 (ou 4) bourses de maîtrise ou doctorat pour donner une (ou 2) bourse(s) postdoctorale(s) de plus. En effet, le comité était toujours estomaqué de voir le petit budget alloué aux bourses postdoctorales, relativement aux bourses de maîtrise et de doctorat (bien que le nombre au doctorat était un peu chiche aussi). La 3ième année (2007-2008), cette pratique nous fut interdite. Nous avons demandé aux gestionnaires du CRSNG, présents avec nous, pourquoi. On nous a répondu qu’il ne fallait pas subventionner trop de bourses postdoctorales parce que ça créerait trop de chercheurs voulant devenir profs (en ce sens où le système ne pourrait pas les absorber). Évidemment, c’est de la foutaise : de nombreux postes étaient encore disponibles, et nous sommes enchantés lorsque nos candidats aux postes de profs ont été des boursiers PDF du CRSNG – il n’y en a que trop peu.

    • casteels1 says:

      Thanks for sharing! I had actually wondered if that was a reason for the PDF drop. It may be a bitter pill to swallow, but at least it would be a decision that could be explained by NSERC with some supporting statistics. I would still disagree with it for a few reasons, but if there’s one thing everyone in the NSE community respects, it’s data.

      I still bet that the main reason for such a massive drop is because of some directive they got telling them to only fund projects that look “shiny” in press releases. I guess we’ll probably never know, but as it stands, NSERC’s silence on the matter just makes them appear blithely cruel.

  5. Steven Siciliano says:

    The decision to shift away from individual PDF awards to program awards like that seen in NCE or CREATE programs, is not one I would support. I’m currently a PI in a CREATE and believe that the CREATE programs represent an excellent vehicle to develop and deliver cross-disciplinary graduate programming. However, at the PDF level, we must empower the individual not the institutions or the professors. The reason for this is that at the PDF level, the individuals have proven themselves and thus, we need to let them choose where and with whom they wish to study. This would result in a diverse academy and strengthen Canada’s research community. The difficulty, as you and others have noted, is that NSERC lies within Industry Canada and hence, NSERC’s mission is to support Industrial development, not development of Canada’s academy.

    Hopefully, other professors will read your post and begin advising their PhD students accordingly. I certainly have and no longer advise students to pursue NSERC PDF’s but rather to focus on industrial sponsored positions, international opportunities or large groups that likely have money available to offer to PDFs.

    • Ghoussoub says:

      Steven: It is correct that “NSERC lies within Industry Canada”, but this does not imply that “NSERC’s mission is to support Industrial development, not development of Canada’s academy.”
      Here is the Council’s original mission:
      http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/NSERC-CRSNG/History-Historique/chronicle-chronique_eng.asp
      “…encourage excellence in research; provide a base of advanced knowledge in the universities; assist in the selective concentration of research activities; aim for a regional balance in scientific capability; maintain a basic capacity for research training; encourage curiosity-oriented research; and encourage research with a potential contribution to national objectives. … these objectives are intended … to ensure long-term coherence in the federal system of university research granting.” (Honourable Hugh Faulkner, then Minister of State for Science and Technology, during the opening comments of the second reading of Bill C-26.)

      • Steven Siciliano says:

        Ghoussoub,

        True but unfortunately, it is not clear to me that the NSERC knows about C-26. The emphasis on HQP training and the recent decision to focus the Strategic program on specific industrial sectors imply that NSERC sees itself as directly supporting innovation in Canada’s industry. Certainly, it appears to me that it is relatively easy to get money to directly support industrial innovation but like getting blood from a stone to get money to support curiosity driven work. I think that your original title is exactly right. NSERC has shifted from C-26 but has done so likely in response to budgetary pressures rather than a thoughtful approach to Canadian science. The Jensen report provides a clear path which would help stop this sort of shift.

        The difficulty is that the federal government wants to draw from the well but not put any water back into the aquifer. I am an applied scientist and many times I’ve had to approach mathematicians, statisticians, chemists, physicists and molecular biologists for the tools we need to solve a problem. For many of my colleagues they are interested in problems, obsess in fact about them, that have no direct industrial ties. Often they don’t need much experimental money, just support for students really. As a academy we must insure that there is support for these students and colleagues. Otherwise… the well will run dry and the next time I run into some sort of odd, real-life problem there won’t be the mathematical, chemical or physical knowledge to solve it.

        In my opinion, one very good solution is to increase NSERC funding rates and success rates for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. This would likely be an easy sell within Industry Canada because increasing funding for graduate students and PDFs is manpower training that supports industries need for highly training personnel and also supports curiosity driven research.

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  7. TL says:

    A bit off topic, but not that far off. The last round of Banting PDFs was announced last week:
    http://news.gc.ca/web/article-eng.do?nid=695009

    The goal of this program is stated (on the Banting Website) as: “The objective of the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships Program is to attract and retain top-tier postdoctoral talent, both nationally and internationally, to develop their leadership potential and to position them for success as research leaders of tomorrow, positively contributing to Canada’s economic, social and research-based growth through a research-intensive career.”

    In the 2011-2 competition, 25% of the awards went to individuals working at institutions outside of Canada. According to the press release: “For Canadian recipients, as many as 25 percent (of the 70 total fellows) will be eligible to go to a foreign research institution for their postdoctoral placements, helping them establish worldwide networks early in their career and raising awareness of Canadian research excellence.”

    So, they’ve maximized the number of these awards going out of the country. In effect, the Canadian Government is providing an ~$1.25 M subsidy to foreign research groups over the next two years, while people here struggle to get their grants funded. Good to see that the Government thinks we need this program to boost our international visibility. In my field, at least, that’s hardly needed.

    • Brent Pym says:

      The year before the Bantings started, NSERC postdocs were slashed: the total annual allocation decreased by $6.12M. In contrast, the NSERC Bantings work out to about $1.7M, so they’re a pittance compared to what was lost from the NSERC postdocs. NSERC postdocs can be held abroad, so it’s probable that there has actually been a decrease in the amount of money being sent abroad through postdocs; I haven’t done the calculation. Regardless, I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that a handful of international Bantings are taking away from researchers’ grants in Canada. If one looks at the amount of the NSERC budget devoted to “Discovery” vs. “Innovation”, one sees pretty clearly that the decreases in Discovery grants are due to a shift towards commercialization, and postdocs are getting hit pretty hard.

      My perception, for which I have no concrete evidence, is that a large number of the science faculty at Canadian universities (at least in mathematics) have some international experience such as a PhD or postdoc done abroad. This suggests to me that a) an international postdoc may be an advantage in the Canadian tenure-track job market and b) some fraction of NSERC’s investments in international postdocs actually does pay back to Canada in the long run. If these suspicions are correct, then it’s probably important that we give our PhD graduates (such as I will soon be…) the chance to work abroad for a time, don’t you think?

  8. jbr says:

    I have it on good authority that recent changes to NSERC programs (the limitations you discuss, raising the minimum grant, etc) come from the very top.

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