Fettering unfettered research funding: The NSERC ways

Last week, I resigned from a committee that is supposed to liaise between NSERC and Canada’s Mathematics and Statistics communities. The reason? An unsettling lack of transparency, shoddy consultation, and poor decision-making by NSERC’s management in handling recent government budget increases. These problems are not new to NSERC. They date back to the presidency of Suzanne Fortier, but they seem to be reaching a crescendo with Mario Pinto. Fortier had to deal with the tightly earmarked budget increases of the Harper years, and so mastered the art of quietly re-allocating what used to be “internally unfettered” NSERC funding. Pinto has been living the dream of allocating three consecutive installments of new unfettered money from government. NSERC claims that all the new funds are going straight to the Discovery Grant program. We beg to differ. Once the funds arrive to NSERC, they become less unfettered than you think.

Since the Naylor report, “Unfettered funding of research” has become the antithesis of the Harper-Goodyear ways of targeting any additional Tri-council funding to specific programs and projects, mostly the business facing research partnership programs. It also signaled scientists’ displeasure of government’s infatuation with announcing funding for boutique programs and projects, often pushed forward by lobbyists and power brokers. “Unfettered funding” also became a slogan for those advocating support for basic research through peer review. At NSERC, this is epitomized by the Discovery Grant Program.

Canadian researchers got their wish starting with the last (election) budget of Stephen Harper: $15-million in unfettered money went to NSERC in 2014. The Trudeau government followed suit in 2016 by adding $30-million to NSERC’s base budget. These were the first unfettered increases in a while. Thanks to Naylor’s report, and to the seemingly infatiguable Science Minister, Kirstin Duncan,  an additional $90-million will be coming unfettered to NSERC starting in 2018 ($45M in the first year and $15M in each of the following 3 years).

But what happens to these unfettered monies once they get to the base budgets of the councils?

NSERC claims that they are all going to the mother of all unfettered programs: The cash-starved Discovery Grants (DG).  But let’s analyze how Mario Pinto and his lieutenants handled the increases of 2014 and 2016.

First, they skimmed 10% of it for administration. Fair enough, but then, instead of assigning the whole amount to the base budget of the DG program, NSERC’s management decided to release only 1/5 of the funds in the first year, while the other 4/5 were held and evidently deployed elsewhere. Then again in the second year, only 2/5 were released to DG, the other 3/5 were deployed elsewhere, and so on. What was their rationale? That it is not fair to give the whole increase to one cohort of applicants as funds should be phased-in over the 5-year granting cycle.

A more equitable system would have been to follow past practices and retroactively increase the awards of the previous 4 years, since the money would anyway be returning to future applicants at the end of the 5-year cycle. Instead, NSERC’s folks chose to keep significant funds out of DG and rationalized their decision on the pessimistic assumption that no new funds will be coming from government in the near future.

But lo and behold, the Trudeau government doubled the funding two years later, which meant that the 2016 cohort could profit from both 1/5th of the 2014 increase and another 1/5 from the 2016 increase. See the following table provided by NSERC to its Liaison Committees.


The same is destined to happen to the 2018 cohort who will profit from 1/5 of 3 increases ($15+$30+$45 millions), i.e., a six-fold advantage over the 2014 & 2015 cohorts and, of course, a major injustice to the 2013 applicants. Should NSERC ramp up the 2018-2021 increases in the same way, a whopping  $270M will then be available to NSERC’s management to allocate outside of DG, all while broadcasting that the funds will ultimately be for DG.

And this is not the end of the story. There is even more room for NSERC’s folks to play.

How did NSERC staff assign increases to the various Evaluation Groups (EGs)? There are 12 of them. We are yet to know their criteria for allocation, but we do know that the increase was not across the Board. How do we know that? Because as usual, the smallest EG, namely the Maths and Stats envelope (EG 1508) got a substantially lower percentage increase than the other 11EGs. See the graph below. The Maths/Stats increase was 6.29% over 5 years, while the rest of the DG portfolio increased by 8.94%. Why? We’re still waiting for an answer.


Is that it you ask? No, because they also managed to skim even more funds to deploy elsewhere. We were recently shocked to learn that the CTRMS, the envelope supporting the Math/Stats institutes and BIRS, received only 1/5 of the 2014 increase and another 1/5 of the 2016 increase, and did not receive the tranches of the following years. The reason given is that the institutes do not have cohorts applying each year.


So, hear me well here. The Discovery grants got only 1/5 of the increase in year one because they have cohorts applying in the subsequent 4 years, while the institutes received only a one-time 1/5 of the increase because they didn’t have cohorts applying in the following 4 years. That’s rich!

As such, the CTRMS did not get 4/5th of both budget increases, which amounts to over a million dollars loss to the institutes over 5 years. More importantly, this is a loss of $400K per annum for the base budget of their envelope at a time where they are trying to fund a new national institute for the statistical sciences (CANSSI), and provide crucial support to Atlantic Canada via AARMS.

Was the funding unfettered for Canada’s maths and stats communities? Not really.

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