A research community at the mercy of a leaderless NSERC  

The bureaucrats of a leaderless NSERC have extended the 5-year grants of three research institutes by two years. This amounts to assigning awards exceeding $7,500,000. They have done so without peer review and against the wishes of one of their own liaison committees and even against the stated position of most of the grantees themselves. Besides issues of authority and accountability, this seemingly friendly act is destined to fracture a research community that strives to work collaboratively and coherently for the national interest. Moreover, the move threatens to upend Canadian leadership in a fragile international collaboration.  Let me explain.

NSERC has just announced that the 2014-2019 grants of the Fields Institute, the Centre de Recherches mathématiques, and the Pacific Institute for Mathematical Sciences will be extended for two years, i.e., till April 2021. The Math/Stats-NSERC Liaison committee and the institute directors themselves had agreed to only one-year extension in order to accommodate NSERC’s internal (and notoriously slow) processes. They keep talking about their low overhead. I say, please increase it, add some expertise, and be a bit more functional! 

On the surface, this looks like a friendly move towards a Canadian math/stats community that is used to be grossly underfunded compared to other disciplines. Far from it! This action is divisive, disruptive, and undermines painstakingly forged international collaborations.  It only serves to cover up the failure of NSERC officials to act on key recommendations by the Long Range Plan for Research in the Mathematical and Statistical Sciences (LRP), that was commissioned by NSERC itself.

The latter was developed in 2012-13 during a year-long consultation process that involved hundreds of researchers from all over the country. The LRP presented a 5-year vision and a strategy that reflected a wide consensus regarding the hopes and aspirations of our research community. Six years after the LRP was officially submitted to NSERC, and in spite of many meetings and exchanges between the institutes directors and the Liaison committee with NSERC officials, many of its key recommendations are yet to be acted upon.

A key recommendation of the LRP called for the creation of the Canadian Statistical Sciences Institute (CANSSI), and for the support of advancing capacity in the mathematical sciences in Atlantic Canada through AARMS. Since the long range plan was commissioned by NSERC in a context of a 0% budget increase, it was agreed that CANSSI and AARMS will not participate in the 2013 competition but will wait for the next one to occur in 2018. The national consensus of the LRP was achieved on the understanding that NSERC would eventually contribute to these two national priorities by increasing the budget of the institutes’ envelope (CTRMS) should additional increases to NSERC from the federal government be forthcoming.

Since that time, there were three substantial increases to NSERC’s budget, one in 2014, another in 2016 and the latest in 2018. Yet the institutes’ envelope (CTRMS) saw its budget decrease relative to the Discovery Grants envelope containing it. In reality, the CTRMS got only 1/5th of the increases that the other Research Grants envelopes received. Some details are here. In effect, the institutes got hit twice. They neither got their fair share of 3 base budget increases, nor were they made whole through new funding to allow for CANSSI and AARMS to launch adequately.

In 2018, NSERC postponed the competition that was supposed to include CRM, Fields, PIMS, CANSSI and AARMS by one year. The Math/Stats Liaison committee and the institute directors acquiesced. It seemed reasonable to allow NSERC staff to award a grant extension for one year on an exceptional basis as long as it is justified by operational necessities. But then, last week they announced yet another extension of the CRM-Fields-PIMS awards by another year, pushing the competition to the fall of 2020. What gives?

Well, 2020 happens to be the year when the Banff International Research Station (BIRS) -a “different beast” mandate-wise and operationally but in the same CTRMS envelope – is up for evaluation and renewal. This creates even more uncertainty and raises questions as to NSERC’s real intentions.

One interpretation goes as follows: Having failed to recognize the strategic importance of data science through CANSSI and the national priority of supporting Atlantic Canada through AARMS, and in spite of availability of new funds thanks to 3 federal budget increases to NSERC since 2014, NSERC’s management decided to essentially let the institutes cannibalize each other. What else can you make of a competition that includes two more institutes without adding appropriate funding to the envelope? Obviously, cuts will have to be made to the -already stagnant- budgets of CRM, Fields and PIMS in order to support CANSSI and AARMS.

That’s if the competition happens in 2018 or 2019. But if the competition is postponed till 2020, then they can throw BIRS into the melee and maybe cannibalize its budget too in order to feed an enlarged competition. All this, because NSERC refused to fund it adequately in spite of the LRP recommendations and opportunities presented by 3 subsequent base budget increases by the federal government.

This action is irresponsible in so many ways. It breaks the multiple disciplinary, the national, and the international consensus on BIRS. Indeed, when the Station was created in 2001, its budget was not supposed to be lumped with the same NSERC envelope as the math sci. institutes. For one, BIRS served many scientific communities and above all, it is a North American collaboration, reviewed and funded jointly by 4 granting agencies: NSERC, the National Science Foundation (NSF), Mexico’s Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACyT), and the Alberta Ministry of Economic Development and Trade.

NSERC’s rigid ways have always been the weak (and frankly tiresome) link in these joint evaluations and decision-making processes. I would hope that these experiences provide the Canada Research Coordinating Committee valuable lessons as it grapples with how to encourage international research collaborations — or at least how not to discourage them. This new wrinkle is destined to make things worse at least for the multinational evaluation process, and constitute a real risk for the precious international collaboration that BIRS currently and uniquely represents.

This development is divisive in so many ways. The station has always been reviewed two years after the institutes, which allowed all directors -Canadian or not– to be present in-person and to support BIRS during the international site visits. This will not be possible anymore. Moreover, having BIRS compete with the institutes leads to serious conflictual situations on its Board of directors since most of them are represented on it: another unpleasant corollary of this ill-advised action.

NSERC needs academic leadership that can weigh in all the consequences of its decisions. Such leadership is currently absent and so much is being decided in an intellectual vacuum. Do you need another proof? Here is the latest communiqué by the NSERC-Math-Stats Liaison group to Canada’s research community:

“NSERC, in its wisdom, has decided to evaluate its non-individual Discovery programs (Institutes, sub-atomic physics, research ships, and the like) by what is essentially a customer satisfaction poll. Leaving aside questions of statistical accuracy, this certainly goes against the basic principles of scientific evaluation, such as international peer review. These points were made, to no avail. The result is that all the Canadian scientists who are funded by NSERC, or who have applied recently, will receive a questionnaire… They are asking about whether funds should flow as a priority to individual grants or the institutes. A somewhat leading question, asking people if they should receive more money or if it should go to someone else; perhaps the context of …  should be borne in mind.”

I will soon write about why I have declined to participate in this “customer satisfaction poll.”

This entry was posted in Op-eds, R&D Policy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A research community at the mercy of a leaderless NSERC  

  1. More on NSERC’s “consumer satisfaction survey.” It’s a biggie, with some 60 (web)pages to complete, each page with anywhere from one to twenty sub-questions. In all, the participants are asked for detailed responses on over 400 questions. If you’d like to preview this before committing to the online survey, you can see the text at my repo: https://github.com/mlamoureux/DG_survey

  2. Marco says:

    Can you link to the announcement from NSERC about extending those grants? I can’t seem to find it anywhere. I’d like to at least read their rationale for it. Thanks.

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