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NSERC also suffering from declining success rates

January 10, 2011

Last week, I discussed the historically low success rates for CIHR operating grants. Turns out this problem may be more widespread. Over at his blog Piece of Mind, professor and blogger Nassif Ghoussoub has outlined how NSERC Discovery Grant success rates have also declined significantly each of the last three years.

Nassif identifies three major issues. First, a shift by both CIHR and NSERC toward targeted funding. Second, increasing focus on partnerships with the private sector at the expense of basic funding. Third, decreased overall funding to the tricouncil.

His blog is a welcome addition to the discussion around tricouncil funding issues, and I look forward to reading more from Nassif in the future.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 10, 2011 11:26

    Over at SSHRC, the success rates dropped from 40% (last
    seen in 2005-06) to 33% in the Standard Research Grant competition.
    They’ve been holding steady for a few years at that rate, but since
    their core budget isn’t changing and there are more people
    applying, asking for more money per grant, I don’t know how long it
    can last.

  2. Jim permalink
    January 10, 2011 13:14

    We are scientists – surely we can see what the problem is here? It’s not “directed funding” as this still represents a small portion of the overall pot and applicants are remarkably good at directing themselves to directed funding in any case (I steadfastly believe in investigator-initiated funding but we are making a mistake in suggesting that the directed funds are somehow unavailable). It’s also not “decreased funding” from the government insofar as the budgets have been trimmed only slightly over the past few years. Of course this has meant a reduction in real terms, but not enough to account for the rapid decrease in overall success.

    The major contributor is that we are out of balance. We are training too many scientists for the public sector to sustain at historical levels. The significant increase in CIHR funding from 2000-2006 more than doubled the budget and a significant portion was put into capacity building. Guess what? We know have an enhanced and highly trained army that is fighting for the same operating grant envelop that was available a few years ago. And still the provinces and Ottawa plough money into undergraduate and graduate students. Applying funds to one part of the system leads to clogging and waste. That’s what we have now. Either we turn down the training engine or we increase the operating grant pool. My guess is that we’ll do neither and the trainees and young investigators will continue to suffer.

    • January 11, 2011 05:06

      Jim – a third option is to direct the training a little
      less toward becoming a professor/grant winner and more toward the
      careers that people will inevitably be forced to enter anyhow
      (industry, law, journalism, education, etc). I’ve recently written
      about this issue on our blog in a post entitled Professionals in
      High Demand @ http://bit.ly/f1q0Px and think you’re
      absolutely right that the balance is disturbed and needs to be
      addressed.

  3. Jim permalink
    January 11, 2011 07:48

    David – totally agree. It seems that is a perception among
    academic scientists that any career path other than academia is
    somehow “lesser” yet the difference between PhD output and new
    academic positions is likely 100 to 5. Postdocs, after training for
    5 or 6 years (not counting their graduate studies) are left to fend
    for themselves with 200 applicants per university job. They are
    already embracing other career opportunities despite the relative
    dearth of assistance given to them. Seems postdocs are the new
    FoxConn workers of the world. Cheap labour, poor prospects, little
    respect. Yet we rely upon them to drive our science.

    • January 11, 2011 10:18

      Jim, you make a great point, and linking it to the overall
      imbalances in academic training, as David does, is absolutely
      correct. For some reason, despite the problems that so many PhDs
      and post-docs across all disciplines are facing, the government
      seems to be putting forward a line that we need to produce more
      PhDs to be competitive. I’m not sure this is true in any sense
      except the purely statistical comparison of numbers of PhDs
      produced in various OECD countries. However, if it is, there is a
      gap in the system at precisely the point that David indicates. If
      PhDs are needed for something other than research
      scientist/professor positions, then we need to make those
      connections more obvious to the students. I am actually not
      convinced we need to be training this many people to PhD level.
      Except for the fact that the whole scientific enterprise is built
      on a pyramid that requires multiple students working in the lab of
      every PI. One connection might be that demands for “relevance” of
      publicly funded science could provide opportunities for PIs to
      connect those people in their labs with relevant career
      opportunities while also connecting the research itself with a
      wider audience. My thoughts on this are preliminary but I began to
      flesh that out here:
      http://jovanevery.ca/two-solitudes-knowledge-mobilizationtransfer-the-phd-problem/
      My beat is the humanities and social sciences but it seems that the
      problem spans all disciplines.

  4. Jim permalink
    January 11, 2011 11:04

    I’m actually surprised that our government hasn’t caught on
    to the fact that PhDs are highly mobile. If we train them but do
    not provide opportunities, they can (and do) seek greener pastures.
    China puts a fair number of restrictions on its own graduates and
    requires many of their postdocs to return home. It’s only the
    lacklustre/decimated science landscape in the US that keeps many of
    the Canadian fellows tethered.

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