Scientists Leaving Research
berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Tue Jul 18 16:24:49 EST 1995
It is very good that you are taking the initiative
to write about this. Problem like that came up many
times in discussions (both e-mail and in-vivo) by many
of our colleagues, in particularly those who have
formed CARRF (Canadian Association for Responsible
Research Funding), and an independent and UNCENSORED
group to discuss these issues.
I personally feel that in an article you are writing
it is very important to make the following point.
Many people, including some scientists, students, and
memebrs of a general public, held, somewhat naive,
view that the main root of all problems in the research
community is "underfunding". This view is energetically
fostered by the mandarins of the grantsmanship
"Poor science. Just give it [ US ] more money, and
everything will be OK". Below your text is our article
(which I have already e-mailed earlier), which elaborates
a bit more why the "underfunding" is a largely
a propagandistic trick to ruse "more money" for the
Also, you may choose to mention the issue of unfair
exploitation of a cheap research labor, esp. postdocs
(postDOGs, as somebody recently said bitterly), who are
deprived of almost all human rights (no or very poor
fringe benefits, no pension plan, no job security or
career growth, etc)
(Erwin Chargaff, "Herculean Fire" wrote about this.).
About graduate students: A dispute I was recently
wittnessing was on the following:
Nowdays, we (esp. in engineering) we start experiencing
relatively new "effect": quite many PhD students are
quitting the program to get jobs and often spit on the
completion of their PhDs. (this effect, to some extent
existed always, but now seems on a clear rise).
There are 2 alternative interpretations of it:
(A) Proponents of the 'growth model'
('the more, the better'):
"Job market is indeed improving and people just
want better pay. We have to take even more grad.
students, to satisfy the market"
(in short, more grantsmanship)
People grabbing whatever offers may come across,
BECAUSE they are not sure that if they miss this
chance, there will be another equivalent offer when
they graduate in a year or two. Hence, its better
to sacrifice the PhD than miss (perhaps,
the last ?) chance.
I will be very much interested to hear from you (and
perhaps, other graduate students) what do you think
of the above points ? Which is more likely: (A) or (B) ?
On Sun, 16 Jul 1995, MYRNA WATANABE wrote:
> I am writing an article for The Scientist on the effects of
> the tight grant and job market on researchers. I would like to hear
> from scientists who have left research, who have witnessed
> shoddy or unethical work in the race to publish, or new Ph.D.s
> or post-docs who have had trouble finding jobs. I would also
> be interested in hearing from anyone who believes there is no
> real problem or anyone who has any statistics on science drop-
> out rates.
> Myrna E. Watanabe, Ph.D.
> email: myrna.watanabe at execnet.com
> fax: 914-376-7487 ph. 914-968-7021
MYTH OF COMPETITION AND NSERC POLICY OF "SELECTIVITY"
Alexander A. Berezin and Geoffrey Hunter
(published in "Canadian Chemical News", March, 1994)
A widely held misconception about science it that its
quality can greatly benefit from the so called "competition
for excellence" which is externally "coordinated" by funding
agencies. Scientific and engineering research in canadian
universities is supported almost exclusively through the Natural
Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). The basis for
the present NSERC funding philosophy and practice is the idea of
"selectivity", i.e. the policy of NOT funding all the applicants.
This is done in the name of the alleged "excellence" of research
and its "competitiveness".
This is reflected both in the adopted NSERC terminology (terms
like "grant SELECTION committee", "next COMPETITION") and the
explicit instructions (!) to committees to recommend a
significant fraction of applicants for non-awards ("NIL" awards).
Notwithstanding the best intentions of its designers, the present
NSERC funding system leads to a highly detrimental
effect: instead of being IDEA AND OPPORTUNITY DRIVEN which is the
true path to excellence (1), the research is GRANT DRIVEN,
GRANT LIMITED and GRANT SEEKING. The only real concern of any
applicant to NSERC is how to optimize all his/her research along
a single (!) criterium : fundability.
The net result of this system is that truly innovative
research is often suppressed by the censorship of the peer-review
process (2). The present NSERC policies encourage prolific
productivity of routine (but easily publishable) results along
well established mainstream research directions. Peer-reviewers
are invariably drawn from the scientific establishement. They
will be supportive of the established (their) projects rather
than truly innovative projects; innovative projects are by
definition not established (3). How supportive was the scientific
establishment when Boltzmann presented statistical mechanics ?
Stressing the very idea of "competition" is based on the
illegitimate transfer of a business model to science. This is a
case when a model is used beyond its actual range of validity.
The so called "competition for excellence" has long ago passed
all reasonable limits needed for a healthy stimulation and
turned into a ferocious rat-race and Darwinian fight for survival
based on a principle of confirmity to the mainstream. Often
really innovative research can only be maintained by its careful
concealment behind the mainstream facade. This dilemma is
especially acute for many interdisciplinary studies and for the
research which challenges the accepted paradigmas and the
While it is undeniable that many NSERC-supported projects are
of a very high calibre, they became so largely IN SPITE of the
system rather than because of it. Their continuing support does
not offset the highly damaging implications of "NIL-awards" for
the morale and research ethics of the entire university
community. Also, a NIL-award to a researcher has a devastating
effect on his/her graduate students, many of whom will consider
dropping a research career altogether. This means a potential
loss of the most valuable of all resources - a human talent.
In terms of canadian research output and international
competitiveness, NIL awards to active researchers leave a
significant fraction of highly (and often uniquely !) trained
scientists FUNCTIONALLY UNEMPLOYED (even though they are paid
salaries TO DO RESEARCH !). Our (very concervative) estimate is
that at least a thousand (!) full-time faculty members in science
and engineering departments in canadian universities have no
external funding whatsoever. On the other hand, a significant
number of well established mainstream research groups
("departmental empires"), often with little real innovation, are
clearly OVERfunded. Furthermore, the overselling the notion
of research "underfunding" is in the interest of such
super-groups experienced in the game of Grantsmenship.
It is a very common stand for almost any group, including the
research community, to attribute all their problems to the
underfunding. "Just give us more money and everything will be
OK". It is always easier to blame somebody else than to look
inside your own household - this is the reason why the
underfunding mythology is so universally attractive and popular.
However, despite that Canada indeed falls behind some other
developed contries in terms of its total R & D expenedure, the
crux of the problem is NOT so much in the bulk underfunding as in
the MISMANAGEMENT of the available resources. Contrary to what
may seem obvouis, under the present funding system "more money"
from the government (even if lobbing for extra funding will
succeed !) will EXACERBATE rather than solve the problem, as
almost all gains of new public money will go to the already well
funded groups and NOT to NIL-funded researchers. This is a well
known "Matthew effect" in science "give-to-those-who- have-and-
We believe that the real roots of major flaws of present NSERC
system lie in its UNDEMOCRATIC nature. Presently the membership
renewal in committees is NOT discussed publicly and no electorial
process is in place. Instead, we have an oligarchic system in
which "committees are simply designated by previuos committees".
Apart from some scattered letters in the public press from
individual researchers, there is no sound democratic feedback
mechanism to NSERC from the entire university research community.
The ineviatble result of any oligarchic structure is that it
proliferates for its own sake. In NSERC case the consequences are
the overblown and overcomplicated (and resource-draining) funding
structure of many dozens of discipline and program committees. To
justify their very existence the multiple NSERC committees
require unnecessary lengthly proposals and multistaged process
of "proposals evaluations". The latter process is de facto
largely consists of a second peer-review of already peer-reviewed
(!) published papers.
Present NSERC trend to even more tighter peer-review "quality
control", even greater "selectivity" in funding (more NIL-awards)
is a step in a precisely THE OPPOSITE direction to what is
required to forster the real excellence and innovation.
Paradoxically it may sound, but agencies like NSERC need LESS (!)
(and not more !) expertise to improve their operations. The
bottomline performance of a complex decision-making system (like
NSERC) is NOT a linear function of the overall "expertise" it
has. In fact, it is an inverted U-curve with a maximum (optimum)
beyond which the system LOOSES its efficiency. This is a known
effect of an over-controlled system - too many strings damage the
adaptability. Like with vitamines, the overdose turns stimulation
into a poison. In our opinion NSERC presently suffers from a
To alleviate the damaging aspects of present NSERC functioning
for the canadian university system, canadian economic
competitiveness and better management of financial and human
resources WE PROPOSE THE FOLLOWING REFORMS:
1. Numerous (now over 40) "grant selection committees" should be
amalgamated to just a few. Their present activity is largely in
"peer-reviewing" of proposals which are almost invariably based
on already peer-reviewed published papers. There is no need to do
peer-review twice. This simply imposes an unfair "double
taxation" on the ideas, work and time of the researchers.
2. Out of 3 present NSERC criteria ("excellence of the
applicant", "excellence of proposals" and "need for funds") only
1st and 3rd should be left. "Excellence of proposals" is largely
a Red Herring. For all practical purposes, the presently used
1-page form (NSERC form 180: "intent to apply") is FULLY
SUFFICIENT IN ITSELF, i.e. as a rule no "longer" proposals should
be written AT ALL. This will not only save many truckloads of
paper, but millions of hours of a highly qualified professional
labor (at $ 30 per hour at cheapest !) to write AND read the
typewritten compilations of already published papers.
(Longer proposals can be left as optional only for some special
cases, e.g. for group grants in high-energy physics, or for the
first-time applicants yet without published papers).
In short: FUND RESEARCHERS, NOT PROPOSALS.
3. The rat-race terminology (grant "selection" ; NSERC
"competition") should be eliminated from the documents and actual
policies. Its continuous use is harmful for the morale of the
entire community and sends a damagingly wrong message, especially
to young scientists, forcing many of them out of profession
and/or out of the country. Science can not and should not
operate by the rules of beauty contests and wrestling games. ALL
university-based researchers whose active status can be sensibly
demonstrated, should be funded at some (basic) level using a
SLIDING FUNDING SCALE rather than NIL-awards (5). These basic
awards (we suggest to call them RBMG - Research Base Maintenance
Grants) may not be great but they should cover such fundamental
expenses as any serious researcher has: publication and reprint
charges, conference travel, computing and software, electronic
networking, etc. The gradaute student support can be much more
efficiently met through the direct grants to the departments
where the students are being trained. We also note, that personal
research expenses which professors squize from their personal
salaries are NOT TAX DEDUCTABLE !
In any case: NIL awards to ACTIVE researchers should not be
tolerated. This practice is based on an ill-conceived philosophy
of the alleged efficiency of a rat-race "competition" in science
when only peer-review defined "excellence" is to be rewarded. In
reality, NIL-awards amount to wasteful and irresponsible
mismanagement of the scientific and intellectual resources of
4. It is imperative to obtain the views of the scientific
community on whether NSERC officials should be elected by all
those eligible for funding, and if found to be so, the electorial
process should be instituted. Nomination to NSERC bodies
(including the President) should be discussed PUBLICLY and in
advance, perhaps through a special bulletin. The candidates
should provide their platforms and be open to public questioning
and criticism before they are elected to the office. They should
be regularly publicly accountable during their entire term in the
office. It is also critically important that the minority and
dissentering views are duly represented.
To conclude, contrary to a misleading similarity, the terms
"competitiveness" and "competition" are quite different. The real
competitiveness of research comes from open opportunities and NOT
from the enforced "competition" which in many cases directly
detrimental for the very spirit of the reasearch. We believe that
a wide and open public dialogue on the above issues is highly
desirable for the strengthening of the economic efficiencey,
international competitiveness and social responsibility of the
canadian research enterprise.
Alexander A. Berezin,
Department of Engineering Physics, McMaster University, Hamilton,
Ontario, L8S 4L7; (905) 525-9140 ext. 24546
email: BEREZIN at MCMASTER.CA
Chemistry Department, York University, North York, Toronto,
Ontario, M3J 1P3; (416) 736-5306 email: FS300022 at SOL.YORKU.CA
1. A.K. Vijh, Canadian Chemical News, 42 (# 10), 14 (1990).
2. A.A. Berezin, American Journal of Physics, 57, 392 (1989).
3. L. Hocker, Physics Today, 46 (#8), 13 (1993).
4. R.K. Merton, Science, 159, 56 (1968).
5. D.R. Forsdyke, Nature, 312, 587 (1984).
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