NSERC has finally responded to the multiple articles, blogs and editorials criticizing the declining success rate in its postdoctoral fellowship program. It is unfortunate that they chose to do so through a media outlet that is sitting behind a pay wall. Under the title “NSERC’s overall spending on post doctoral fellowships is increasing despite criticism”, the magazine “Re$earch Money” relates NSERC’s official position, quotes Isabelle Blain, VP for research grants and scholarships, and includes a couple of NSERC generated tables that we analyse below. The new calculus used by NSERC to explain their numbers reveals a new dirigisme that our young scholars will be contending with for a while.
The article quotes Isabelle Blain as saying: “The success rate to me has become meaningless … What is more important is how we are investing in PDFs and support a growing number. ”
What I think Blain meant to say is that NSERC has multiple outlets for its support of postdoctoral fellowships: One provides a direct source of support, namely through the traditional postdoctoral fellowship program and its industrial counterpart (IRDF). Another source of PDF support is indirect and capitalizes on one of the multiple uses of the traditional Discovery Grants as well as the relatively new CREATE program.
Much information can be extracted from the following tables provided by NSERC to “Re$earch Money”.
First, we get a confirmation –through the last 3 columns of the first table– of what has been reported by many articles and blogs: the number of opportunities through the traditional PDF program has been dramatically reduced. In the past 7 years, the number of awards has dropped from 255 in 2006 to 98 in 2012, and the success rate from 25.4% to 7.8%.
The second table offers additional insight. For one, the numbers for the critical 2011-12 years aren’t there. Moreover, the discrepancies between the numbers of non-industrial awards reported in Column 6 of Table 1 and those in Column 2 of Table 2 is puzzling. Since the awards span 2 years, one would expect the number for 2010-11 (say) to be the sum of the awards for 2010 and those of 2011, that is 286+133= 419 and not the reported 526.
The first real surprise however is to see that the numbers of the industrial PDFs (IRDF) are essentially unchanged –from 223 in 2005-06 to 225 in 2010-11. Besides showing that the total number of PDFs through the direct program (traditional or industrial) has been declining, this begs the question as to why is it the case, considering NSERC’s huge efforts to promote IRDF. Indeed, many of the applicants who don’t get the traditional PDF receive a letter from NSERC pre-approving them for an industrial PDF provided they can find an industrial partner to co-sponsor them. Is it conceivable that this approach by NSERC is not doing the job? And doesn’t it also mean that most of our postdoctoral applicants are opting to go to the US or Europe instead of taking the IRDF route?
NSERC’s fellowship calculus seems to have been relying on the PDFs that are supported indirectly via its other programs, particularly through the Discovery Grants (DG). Notwithstanding that the budget for the DG program has been stagnant for years, NSERC seems to keep shifting to it the burden of covering for the programs it is currently downsizing such as the PDF program and the Research Tools and Instruments (RTI).
The bulk of the discovery grants is used anyway to support graduate and postdoctoral fellowships, but it is a fact that the DG budget has been stagnant for years with no reprieve in sight. So how –if we are to agree with Table 2– could the number of DG-supported PDFs be going up?
For an answer, NSERC credits the so-called “Accelerator grants”, a new component of the DG program that remains a mystery to Canada’s scientific community. Indeed, every year a select few of DG applicants get these additional grants, yet no one knows how these selections are done and on what basis. It suffices to say that a non-trivial number of such choices have been puzzling enough and so unexpected that more transparency in the process may be warranted. Another unknown piece of the puzzle is how much of the accelerator’s budget is really new and how much of it is being siphoned off from an already depleted and oversubscribed DG pool. Notwithstanding that these grants seem to discriminate royally against senior researchers who –you would think– still have something to offer to the mission of training future scholars, the bottom line is that the value added in terms of real dollars to young scholars may be close to zero.
My own take on why the number of PDFs is increasing through the DG program is simply that investigators are shifting a larger portion of their grants to support HQPs. At the same time, they are being more creative in leveraging their grants with university resources to fill the gap in positions that NSERC is providing no more through its traditional postdoc program.
Last but not least in terms of the indirect support for PDF is the newly created “Collaborative Research and Training Experience” (CREATE), as it is becoming clear that this is the place where much of the funds for the traditional PDF competitions has been going. But this post is getting long, so let’s summarize the main issue with such a re-allocation of resources.
While any fresh Canadian PhD, practicing any scientific discipline and aiming for any post-secondary institution could apply to the PDF competition, the requirements for a successful CREATE project are considerable and the restrictions on an aspiring HQP to join one of them are often crippling. Here is some text from NSERC’s webpage about what CREATE could and could not do:
- A CREATE team must include the acquisition and development of important professional skills among students and postdoctoral fellows that complement their qualifications and technical skills, in order to facilitate the transition of new researchers from trainees to productive employees in the Canadian workforce.
- Up to 50 percent of the CREATE grants will be dedicated to the industrial stream. The additional objective is to support improved job-readiness within the industrial sector by exposing participants to the specific challenges of this sector and training people with the skills identified by industry.
- at least 60 percent of the CREATE funding will be directed toward the following NSERC priority areas:
- Environmental science and technologies
- Natural resources and energy;
- Manufacturing; and
- Information and communications technologies.
And here is a paragraph that doesn’t sound very welcoming to our fresh PhDs.
- “Postdoctoral fellows may also be supported (emphasis is mine), as it is recognized that they often play an integral part in the training of graduate and undergraduate students. If postdoctoral fellows are included, their contributions to the training program and the enhanced benefits this group can realize by being involved must be clearly elaborated.”
In other words, many of our graduates are neither eligible, nor interested in pursuing PDFs through CREATE. Yet, this is where NSERC seems to want to put its resources. This is our own Canadian version of “Dirigisme”, a subject that we will surely revisit soon and often.