NSERC has lost its bearings … again

The last time I used this title was in 2012. Canada’s Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) had grown embarrassed by the dwindling success rate in its postdoctoral fellowship program, the latest having clocked in at 7.8%. So, Suzanne Fortier, the then president, decided to artificially inflate these rates by limiting the number of times graduating Canadian PhDs can apply for such awards to … once in a lifetime. Then, in May of 2020, NSERC’s new president, 

reversed that decision and allowed previously unsuccessful applicants to re-apply for the 2021 competition. Fairness had been restored, we thought. NSERC’s new leadership was hailed, at least on Twitter. 

Then the ugly reality trickled down. Not only NSERC hadn’t increased the number of fellowships available to accommodate the new influx of returning applicants, but they had actually proceeded -a few months prior to that- to cut those awards by 39% (from 180 in 2019 to 111 in 2020 – see Table below). This was a decision taken by a government agency in the year of COVID-19. A year where opportunities for young careers were already more scarce than ever both in academia and in industry. So, 2021 is ending up being an annus horribilis on steroids for hundreds of fresh Canadian PhDs, with the few women in STEM among them taking more than their share of the hurt.

The shrinking pot for early career researchers: First, some available data from previous years. Here you can see that the number of awards available went down from 180 in 2019 to 111 in 2020, with the success rate for postdoctoral fellowships shrinking from 36.7% in 2019 to 24.7% in 2020. No explanation was given by the new NSERC leadership on why the budget for a program that is so crucial to early career researchers was cut by $3.2-million. The envelope for postdoctoral fellowships stand now at $5-million, in an NSERC budget that exceeds $1.3-billion. We thought that, after the far-reaching Naylor report, cuts within the tri-council were behind us, at least for early career programs. Also note the decreasing numbers of postdoc. applications. Is the next generation of Canadian researchers giving up? That’s a story for another day.   

But this action pales compared to what happened this year. Understandably, NSERC is not and will not be in a hurry to release this year’s data. This is what we found so far.

A huge increase in the number of applicants: As mentioned above, NSERC reversed its 2012 decision and allowed unsuccessful applicants from previous competitions to re-apply in 2021. The effect on the competition, in the year of COVID that saw a penury of university and private sector positions, was predictable –but not to NSERC’s decision makers? The number of applicants more than doubled. Some committees such as “Cellular and Molecular Biology” (#187) saw their numbers go from 40 in 2020 to 77 in 2021. Applicants to the committee for “Ecology & Evolutionary Biology” (#169) almost tripled from 31 in 2020 to 90 in 2021.

But what do we know about the 2021 results? An applicant in Computer science ranked 6th out of 47, posted on an online chat room that they were on a waitlist. Assuming that all subcommittees are treated similarly, and unless NSERC restores the budget for fellowships, this means this year’s success rate is hovering around 11%. This would be consistent with a -nothing less than cruel- decision by NSERC’s leadership to stick with the cuts implemented in 2020 for the available opportunities while watching the applications multiply. In comparison, the 2021 success rate for the notoriously competitive Banting fellowships which pay $25,000 more than an NSERC postdoctoral fellowship, clocked in at 9.3%.

The waiting list: Another bizarre aspect of the NSERC process is the artificially long waitlist, which prolong false expectations for our young researchers. The 12th out of 44 in the Psychology committee (#196) and the 19th out of 63 in the Civil engineering committee (#201) are waitlisted. This is in the 27% (resp., 30%) percentile of applicants. In other words, those told to be on waitlists are twice as numerous as those confirmed to be getting an award. These false hopes are totally unnecessary, unless of course NSERC has plans to redress this year’s anomalies and restore the budget for fellowships.   

Diversity, diversity, diversity: And as usual, early career women scientists are the most touched by these regressive decisions. One wonders why the NSERC PR machine have been on overdrive lately singing loudly their commitments to equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). Op-eds in the Ottawa MSM, Celebratory Posters, Glossy reports, yet their own data tell a different story. While CIHR has recently announced the implementation of parity in success rates for men and women, NSERC hasn’t done so. Their numbers show that the success rate for women in 2019 (resp., 2020) was 6% (resp., 3%) below those for men, with even bigger discrepancies in certain disciplines. Canadian women in research are calling for an end to systemic discrimination. NSERC needs to listen. 

The leak in the pipeline: The state of this particular NSERC program for early career researchers is important. This is exactly where the “leaky” pipeline is actually leaking, i.e., where the major defections from academia of women & BIPOC in STEM occur. Indeed, some data from the UK shows that while 39% of PhD students in STEM are women, only 9% end up being professors, i.e., those accurately described by NSERC as the “Iron Willed”.

The role of government: Are we about to lose a whole generation of Canadian researchers? In the year of COVID, graduating PhDs are struggling to find pathways to continue their research & employment. The government has acknowledged that “the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified systemic & longstanding inequalities with women disproportionately affected.” I don’t believe they had factored in the tri-council latest travail in their assessment. Government has now created a $100M “Feminist Response & Recovery Fund” to address these hardships. Coherence in decision-making dictates that a government agency such as NSERC not pull in the opposite direction and not decrease support for the very few Canadian women in STEM. 

 

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