Is the BIRS programme multiple disciplinary enough for NSERC?

The programs of the Banff International Research Station (BIRS) in Banff and Oaxaca are supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), Canada’s Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Mexico’s Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACyT),  and the Alberta Ministry of Economic Development and Trade. In 2003, NSERC’s funding for BIRS was on par with its two partners then, covering 33% of the station’s inaugural budget. Fast forward to 2018 to see NSERC’s current funding for BIRS being the lowest among the four partnering governments – at 22% of the total budget. How did we get here?

in 2003, the president of NSERC was Tom Brzustowski, a true champion of Canadian leadership in international scientific collaborations. He was knowledgeable about, and a believer in, the BIRS model, thanks to his European experiences and contacts (Oberwolfach, Les Houches, CIRM, Dogshtul, etc.). He was the one that connected us with the NSF leadership, and even asked his Vice-President (Discovery Grants), Nigel Lloyd, to accompany me to Virginia to jumpstart the collaboration – A first. A special joint site visit with the NSF by an international panel was arranged in record times – Another first. Funding that recognized the multidisciplinary and international role of BIRS was eventually secured by NSERC – Another first. BIRS was not to belong to one of NSERC’s disciplinary silos. In a way, the creation of BIRS defied NSERC’s frequently criticized modus operandi, its uber-bureaucratic ways, and its eternal “gueule de bois.” Unfortunately, that was to be a one off. I will never repeat it enough: Canada’s scientific community owes Tom Brzustowski a great deal.

Fast forward to 2018, and BIRS is now a fixture of the Math/Stats envelope, subjected to the legendary rigidity of NSERC’s outdated, uni-disciplinary, frozen in-time and frozen in-budget structures. Take a read here for an even more unfavorable set of decisions vis-a-vis the mathematical sciences institutes by NSERC’s bureaucrats.

“Yes, we are anchored on the mathematical sciences, but we are multi-disciplinary, Mr President, and the funding should not be religiously linked with the most poorly endowed EG of the Discovery Grant Program.” Prove it, send us the data, the NSERC folks keep saying, as if it is not enough to look at published annual reports, public webpages, and widely distributed program posters.

So, here is data for 2018


and for 2019


And if this is not sufficient, we have decided to collect the EG affiliation of every NSERC grant holder, who is participating in BIRS programs. The “binning system,” a darling of bureaucrats, continues its infestation of Canada’s processes. The Canada Research Coordinating Committee is mandated to fix all that. Let’s hope they will take a look at the birth of BIRS.


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1 Response to Is the BIRS programme multiple disciplinary enough for NSERC?

  1. Derek Bingham says:

    The numbers here are just the tip of the iceberg because they do not include the large volume of scientific applications that were addressed by the mathematical and statistical scientists in their work presented at BIRS. My grant comes from EG 1508, and my talk was about statistical methodology. However, the research was done with collaborators from cosmology. You might consider asking for the EG of all co-authors/collaborators or mining past abstracts for the appropriate EG.

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