NSERC corrects a mistake, but many remain unaddressed

No, I am not talking about the sudden and probably more consequential recent change in NSERC’s leadership, but about an accounting mistake. Yes, it looks minor, but it speaks volume. As I mentioned in a previous post, I resigned last May from a committee that was supposed to liaise between NSERC and Canada’s Mathematics and Statistics communities (The MSLC-see below). I described vaguely the reasons why: An unsettling lack of transparency, shoddy consultation, and poor decision-making by NSERC’s management in handling recent government budget increases. Last week-end, I learned that NSERC did address and partially fix the way they handled the 2014 and 2016 government increases, but we remain a long way from accountability and redress. Let me explain.

In 2012 the mathematical and statistical sciences community, at the request of NSERC, developed a Long Range Plan for Research in the Mathematical and Statistical Sciences (LRP). Following a year-long consultation process which involved hundreds of researchers in almost every mathematics and statistics department in the country, the LRP presented a vision and a strategy for 2013–2018 that reflected a wide consensus regarding the hopes and aspirations of our community. Five years after the LRP was officially submitted to NSERC, it is becoming clear that many of its key recommendations were not acted on by the NSERC leadership.

An important recommendation of the report was the establishment of an LRP implementation committee of scientists that would work with the NSERC staff to realize the vision set out in the LRP. Instead, NSERC established a “Mathematics and Statistics Liaison Committee (MSLC),” which was not launched until August 2016, hence could not be consulted about the 2014 and 2016 budget increases. Actually, the MSLC did not learn about the outcome of the allocations until April 2017, and took a whole year after that before the trusting eyes of its members turned vigilant and realized what had happened to the NSERC Discovery Grants envelope for EG1508, Mathematics and Statistics, and the CTRMS sub-envelope for Collaborative and Thematic Resources in the Mathematical Sciences, i.e., the institutes and BIRS.

Some details are here, but the crux of the matter is that another important LRP recommendation was ignored and not implemented. It stated that Discovery Grant sizes in mathematics and statistics be adjusted to reflect the importance of the research base to Canada, and to acknowledge that the costs of research are similar to those in several related science and engineering disciplines.

It turned out that the very opposite happened, a fact that was eventually pointed out to NSERC in May 2018, in a series of exchanges and conference calls that led to my resignation. Now I learn that in late August 2018, NSERC admitted to the MSLC that two “inconsistencies” occurred and that it was willing to make a correction.  So what happened?

First, they realized that the original figures presented in June 2017 gave an incorrect starting planned budget of $301,549,000 for the 11 Evaluation Groups. Using this amount as a starting point, the increase to the 11 EGs between 2014 and 2018 appeared to be 10.02%, while the increase for the Math-Stats envelope was 8.64%. In verifying these numbers NSERC discovered that this starting planned budget was in fact $304,106,000, which means that the 11EGs received only a 9.096% increase between 2014 and 2018, while the Math-Stats envelope share increased only 6.11%.

Why was the Math-Stats share below the other EGs? Well because it turned out that they made another incorrect calculation, as they did not fully account for the total funds held by the institutes at that time. To remedy the discrepancy, NSERC calculated that the 2018-19 Math-Stats envelope base budget should receive an increase of $97,000. It remains to be seen whether this latest correction is correct.

The real problem is that this small correction only addresses the tip of the iceberg of NSERC’s long list of “inconsistencies” vis-a-vis Canada’s Math and Stats communities, most of which haven’t been acknowledged, let alone addressed. For example, and as explained here, the CTRMS received only 1/5th of its share of the 2014 and 2016 increases, and consequently saw its budget decrease from 19.6% to 18.8% of the Discovery Grants envelope for EG1508. But what makes this development particularly haunting, is its betrayal of another key recommendation of the LRP.

Indeed, the LRP called for the creation of the Canadian Statistical Sciences Institute (CANSSI). Since the long range plan was commissioned by NSERC in a context of a 0% budget increase, the mathematical sciences institutes: CRM, Fields, and PIMS, committed in 2012 to providing funding for CANSSI from their own budgets ($500K). These commitments were formalized during the 2014 NSERC competition, without any commensurate increase to the institutes’ budget by NSERC. At the same time the three institutes co-invested in advancing capacity in the mathematical sciences in Atlantic Canada through committing funding to AARMS. Again, NSERC did not contribute to that important effort during the 2014 competition. The national consensus of the LRP was achieved on the understanding that NSERC would contribute to these two national priorities, should additional increases to NSERC from the federal government be forthcoming. There were two increases to base budget in 2014 and 2016, yet the CTRMS, saw its budget decrease relative to the Discovery Grants envelope containing it. In effect, the institutes got hit twice. They neither got their share of the 2014 and 2016 budget increases, nor were they made whole through new funding for CANSSI and AARMS.

Canada’s mathematics and statistics communities will continue to ask for accountability. The historic investment in NSERC by the federal government as announced in Budget 2018 ought to make the difference it was intended for. It should and will lead to a redress for the mathematical sciences. We will see to it. Stay tuned.

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