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NSERC 2009 Discovery Grant Statistics

May 29, 2009

NSERC has published the statistics from last year’s Discovery Grants competition (.pdf file here). As was noted when the announcement was made several weeks ago, while the average amount awarded per grant increased, the success rate decreased significantly, from 71% to 64%, but there are a number of other interesting aspects to the stats.

At the time of the original announcements, the government had noted that the total amount of funding, per applicant, had increased from 2008 to 2009, which seemed a strange way of measuring things. It was only in a second less widely circulated release that the government suggested the total funding hadn’t changed, implying that the increase in funding per applicant was simply due to fewer applicants. Now, with the actual numbers, we can confirm this: the number of applicants dropped from 3,405 to 3,210.  And though NSERC suggested that the total funding hadn’t changed, according to the numbers NSERC provides (Budget availability * no. of applicants), the total amount awarded in 2009 was $68.7-million vs. $71.5-million in 2008 – a drop of nearly 5% in total funding.

A closer look at the numbers also reveals that decreased success rates aren’t due to an increase in the number of early-career researchers. Given the poor success rate of early-career researchers (only 58.5% successful), it could be possible that this year’s lower success rate is due to an influx of new researchers hired during the recent recruitment drives on many campuses. The stats show, however, that the number of first-time applicants dropped more than 10%, from 721 to 637, suggesting that the decreased success rate is due to established researchers no longer receiving funding. Indeed, the report demonstrates that the number of grant holders whose grants were not renewed rose from roughly 240 in 2008 to almost 400 in 2009, and increase of more than 60% – thereby supporting the personal stories of two researchers who saw their NSERC funding cut this year. 

Overall, the numbers demonstrate that a total of almost 400 fewer researchers received funding from the Discovery Grants program this year; even when the 200 fewer applicants are removed from consideration, this means that the number of funded researchers dropped by roughly 10% from last year to this year. 

A few other highlights:


  • The average grant amount was $34,311
  • While the success rate remains relatively high (64%), the funding rate remains relatively low at 38.3% this year (39% in 2008). This represents the amount of money awarded vs. the amount of money requested. 
  • The most money was awarded to UofT ($7.4-million), UBC ($6.2-million), and McGill ($4.5-million).
  • Highest success rates (more than 15 applicants): Trent (81.3%), Queen’s (80.2%), and Montreal’s École de Technologie Supérieure (79.2%)
  • Figures that show changes in grant level are quite revealing. First (Figs 3-4), in a scatter plot of this year’s funding vs. last year’s funding, the 2008 vs. 2007 results are tightly scattered along the diagonal, indicative of relatively stable funding between the two competitions. This year’s results, however, are much more widely distributed, suggesting much larger variation – both up and down – between last year’s and this year’s funding. Instability in funding is anathema to researchers, who need to plan in multi-year chunks when agreeing to supervise students, participate in projects, etc.
  • Figures 5 and 6 demonstrate the percentage change in renewals. Here, the numbers agree with the previous figures – in 2008, renewals were practially all within 10-20% of previous grant amounts. In 2009, the figures were “much more dynamic”, in the words of the report. Most revealing, however, is that in 2008 only 243 grant-holders were not successful in renewing their grants; in 2009, that figure was 396 – an increase of more than 60%.
  • Figures 8 and 9 show that while the average grant size has remained relatively constant since 2001, the success rate has been trending downwards by 20-30% in that time.
  • The grant selection committees with the highest success rates were Space and Astronomy (75.0%), Condensed Matter Physics (73.4%), and Evolution and Ecology (72.9%). The lowest success rates were Civil Engineering (58.4%), Interdisciplinary (57.4%), and Cell Biology (51.5%).
One Comment leave one →
  1. anon permalink
    June 20, 2009 03:48

    Do you have any idea why the number of applicants decreased by over 5%? I have heard the Discovery Grants now have a ‘fatal error’ category, which are disqualified for things like having the wrong font size. Are these disqualified grants taken out of the total or are they included in the total number of applicants?

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