Tan vs NSERC, challenging Canada's grant system

Richard Gordon gordonr at cc.UManitoba.CA
Sat Sep 9 20:37:10 EST 1995

The first court challenge of Canada's granting system was lost this 
summer. I attach (with all permissions granted) two letters from:

"Geoffrey Hunter (Pres. CARRF)" <FS300022 at sol.YorkU.ca>
"Alexander A. Berezin (Exec. Secr. CARRF)" <BEREZIN at MCMASTER.CA>

giving two opinions about what did, should have, and now should happen.

Grant writing and grantsmanship have now become part of the formal 
curriculum for many of our graduate students, which, in the long run, 
will only serve to notch the competition up some more, taking us further 
from the concept of good science, and a "life before nature" (Chargaff). 
The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of those who fund each 
other is not an optimal use of the privilege of dispersing and spending
public funds. We in CARRF will look for other venues in our attempt to 
introduce sliding scales and undo the present guillotine of NIL funding, 
which wrecks careers and encourages mediocre, middle of the road research.

It is hard for those of us in CARRF to defend ourselves against a "sour 
grapes" accusation. Most of us have, indeed, had the short end of the 
funding stick, at least often enough to smart a bit. But we work at our 
research anyway, knowing our own worth. We don't expect restitution by 
our peers, but work instead for a better atmosphere for research for the 
next generation.

Canada has chosen to invest a small fraction of its GNP in research, much 
smaller than many other countries. Canadian scientists can point to this 
and clamor for more money. But we seem to get less. It therefore becomes 
important to ask whether a different distribution of funds would yield 
more, or better research, than we now manage. There are other models than 
what we practice, and we ought to seriously consider changing our ways. 
If we don't, the Canadian Government may someday catch on, and change them 
for us.

Right now, today, we all know of good scientists doing good research who 
aren't getting the funding they need, or worse, getting none at all. This 
is a waste that a country like ours can ill afford.

-Dick Gordon, VP, CARRF (Canadian Association for Responsible Research 

Dear Professor Goh:

    Firstly I apologize for taking so long to reply to your email of June 
20th.  I presume that your enquiry was a result of CARRF's advertisement 
in the June issue of Canadian Chemical News offering information about 
NSERC's appeal procedure ? 

1. Yes I believe that there is a deadline for submission of appeals.  It 
may well have passed for this year (I don't know the date).  I would have 
thought that the Notification of Decision would stipulate the deadline 
date. Regardless of the deadline, if you feel inclined to Appeal go ahead 
anyway and make an excuse for being after the deadline. 

2. The situation that you describe - a "substantial reduction" from 
$15,000 to $13,000 is similar to that of Dr. K.K.Tan (Mathematics, 
Dalhousie Univ., Halifax, Nova Scotia); he was cut from $9,000 to $6,000 
in March 1993 notwithstanding an outstanding publication record (23 
papers in 2 years). His referee reports (3) were similar to yours: 2 
favourable, 1 unfavourable, with one of the favourables being rated 
"High" in terms of ability to assess the application.  The unfavourable 
report criticised him for publishing too many papers, and went on to 
impugn that he was repetitiously publishing many small papers containing 
partial results in a deliberate attempt to subvert the peer review system 
by attempting to curry favour with an outstanding publication record.  
Tan has vigorously denied the charges and after failing to get 
satisfaction from NSERC (via an appeal and subsequent letters to NSERC 
officials including the President, Peter Morand) he decided to seek 
redress in the Federal Court of Canada.

Court proceedings move at the pace of medieval mule trains, and it was 
April 25, 1995, before his case was heard before a Judge of the Federal 
Court.  The Judge, a man by the name of P.Rouleau (French-Canadian) was 
obviously biased against Tan and CARRF throughout the court hearing. He 
cut off dispositions after one day even though a second court-day had 
been scheduled for the hearing.  Tan (and I representing CARRF) was 
shocked by this unwillingness to give the matter a full and fair hearing. 
He was strongly biased against Tan on April 25th, and his "Judgment" 
(dated June 21st) dismisses Tan's application for redress by ignoring the 
substantive issues of the case and accepting NSERC's plea that as long as 
its formal procedures were followed, no criticism is warranted.

Tan is now faced with filing to have Rouleau's "Judgment" reconsidered 
(formally by an "appeal" to the Appeals division of the Federal Court of 
Canada) and I understand (from a conversation with K.K.Tan yesterday) 
that the Appeal document is being prepared.  There was a brief report 
including interviews with K.K.Tan and Carmen Charette (NSERC's Director 
of Research Grants) on CBC Radio News on Friday, July 7th. The CBC 
reporter covering the case (since January 30th) is Mary Weins of CBC 
Toronto. It will likely be sometime in 1996 before his Appeal is heard 
before 3 Judges; Tan (based upon advise from his solicitor) clings to the 
belief that 3 judges will be fairer than 1.  Not being a Mathematician 
(like Tan) the logic of this belief escapes me, but he seems quite happy 
to be contemplating "pouring good money after bad" - his legal costs so 
far exceed $30,000 and the Federal Court Appeal will likely set him back 
another $10,000 - $20,000.  Tan even mentioned the possibility of going 
to the Supreme Court of Canada, where 5 judges will wrinkle their 
eyebrows repetitiously at the rate of $500 per hour per muscle.  Not bad 
money if you can get it - from the Canadian Taxpayer of course.

Please excuse my extensive aside; it will at least dissuade you from the 
Legal Route to the glory and penury of being right.  Returning to your 
own possible NSERC Appeal: 

Under NSERC's Appeal Rules the onus is on you to prove that there was 
unfairness or bias in the handling of your grant application.  This isn't 
too easy to do, especially since the identity of the Referees and the 2 
GSC members who reviewed your application is kept from you.  But then 
"all's fair in love and war" and you must realize that you at war with 
NSERC; their Appeal Procedure is designed to on the one hand give the 
Public and Politicians the impression that they are being "fair" by 
having an Appeals procedure, while at the same time making it as 
difficult as possible for appellants to file successful appeals.

NSERC receives about 150 appeals each year (for the past 3 years the 
numbers are 156, 136, 177).  The success rate is around 15% (28, 30, 21). 
I believe that the result of an appeal depends mainly upon your status in 
the system and upon who is (anonymously) asked to decide on your appeal. 
One appellant "won" his appeal on the flimsy grounds that he believed 
that the Committee had an obligation to tell him why they were "not 
convinced" by uniformly positive referee reports.  That he enjoyed 
above-average status (his grant was cut from $69,000 to $54,000) was 
doubtless a factor in winning his appeal.  However "winning" his appeal 
did not increase his grant but merely obliged him (he wasn't given the 
option) to reapply next year ("a reduction in term from 3 years to 1 
year"), and when he did reapply next year the Committee reaffirmed their 
decision of a year earlier to reduce his grant to $54,0000, and since 
this was now "renewal at the same level as his previous grant" the 
Committee was not obliged to give him an explanation, and their decision 
was not subject to appeal, thus creating the perception that: "When is a 
successful Appeal not a successful Appeal - when it is an NSERC Appeal".  
In roughly half of the "successful" appeals (14, 23, 7) the term is 
reduced (to 1 year), with the implication (or vain hope) that the 
Committee will correct its own mistake the following year.

Thus the chances of actually getting your grant restored to its former 
level via NSERC's appeal process are less than 10%, and thus I would 
encourage you to write (instead of an appeal) a letter of Protest to 
NSERC (with copies to Jon Gerrard, Secretary of State for Science and 
Technology, and to John Manley, Minister of Industry, from whose coffers 
NSERC's $465 million flows).  Keep the argument simple.  Avoid 
intellectual, logically motivated arguments; they fly like a lead balloon 
- K.K.Tan filled pages with eloquent, logically convincing argument 
explaining why the comments of his one unfavourable referee were 
invalid.  Those sophisticated arguments have been ignored by the GSC, by 
the NSERC Appeal adjudicator, and by NSERC's staff (Carmen Charette, 
Director of Research Grants, and Peter Morand, NSERC President), by 
NSERC's lawyer in Court (Rhea Hoare) and by the Honorable Mr. Justice 
Rouleau. I know that it is a real bind to be locked in to a small grant 
like $13,000 for the next 4 years.  You don't really know how much money 
you will need, and if 2 or 3 graduate students want to work with you 
sometime in the next few years, you'll have a financial problem how to 
support them. There is an answer - support my application to be the next 
President of NSERC. Peter Morand is "stepping down" in September and I 
have applied to take his place.  If, in the unlikely event that the 
primates of Parliament hill take the bold initiative of appointing 
somebody who has ideas for sorting out the awful mess at NSERC (rather 
than another Defender of the Faith), then you'll likely get whatever 
(reasonable) amount of money you really need, for I intend to phase out 
grants that are fixed for 3-5 years, and instead let people apply for 
(substantial budget items) whenever the need arises. The British have 
already started to do this; they call it "responsive mode" financing.  I 
call it "interactive financing".  Peer Review will (largely) be replaced 
by Selection by Graduate Students; they will select which professor they 
want to work with, and the lucky ("nice") guys will get the requisite 
money and the others can go off to finishing school (at their own 
expense) to brush up on their interpersonal skills.

I trust that the length of this letter somewhat compensates for it's 

Sincerely,   Geoffrey Hunter, Chemistry, York U. Toronto.  Date: Wed, 16 
Aug 1995 10:08:02 -0400 (EDT) 

From: Alexander Berezin <Berezin at mcmail.CIS.McMaster.CA
To: Arturo <ICAA at vm1.si.USherb.ca
Subject: Tan's case 

Dear Arturo, 

To your last message, just few more words on Tan's case. Contrary to 
Geoffrey, I was rather lukewarm about CARRF formally intervening in Tan's 
case. Geoff was (over)enthusiastic, he spend enormously massive and noble 
effort on all this and practically single handedly all the work (and to 
very large extent educating his lawyer). Nonetheless, I was an observer 
and was sitting for the entire day Apr.25 in the Court. So, I got some 
opinion too. The main reason, I was not hot about CARRF intervening is 
that my opinion was (and even so more now), that it was not "our" case. 
The main thing is that Tan was FUNDED. Yes, his grant was relatively 
small ( 6,000 per year or 9,000 - forgot exactly), and perhaps his 
reduction was unjust. BUT: what he essentially tried to say to the Court 
was: "I am as good (or maybe) better than THEM, so I deserve much more 
because I am so good" It is definitely NOT a message I can co-sign. My 
prime objective in forming CARRF was (and still is) to gain the 
recognition of a simple fact that all university profs. who do legitimate 
research do need SOME operating funds. In short, basic grants to (almost) 
all, subjected to only reasonable evidence of continuing scholarly 
activity. Let more ambitious/greedy compete for more. (and on all this I 
have a COMPLETE agreement with Geoffrey). Therefore, for me Tan's case 
(ironically !) was almost a case from the "opposite side". In some way, 
would I be a judge, I would likely rule as he did (apart from NSERC 
appeal procedure, which is bluntly illegal). Long before, I tried to say 
to Tan, "look, just wait for another NSERC renewal. They will likely cut 
you to NIL, and THEN you would have an enormously stronger case."  (when 
I first met him, his involvement with  lawyers, etc., was already too far 
for him  to return to a "waiting" tactics, so he  can't follow this). I 
am more or less sure that if few (or even one) UNFUNDED prof. will go 
ahead with a similar case, the chances to beat NSERC will be much higher. 
I certainly, can't do it alone - contrary to Tan, who apparently have 
some wealthy relatives, I just can't afford anything close to what he 
spend on this case. Best - Alex On Wed, 16 Aug 1995, Arturo wrote: Dear 
Alex: Yes, I did get Tan's file and so learned that he lost but is 
appealing the ruling. I was impressed by the amount of work Geoff Hunter 
has put to plead Tan's case, and it's not over yet. If I understood 
correctly he has filed a complaint against the judge and other officials. 
Frankly, I doubt it will have any effect. He risks overstating his case 
against NSERC by taking on the whole bureaucratic establishment. Hope I'm 
wrong. Greetings. --Arturo. 

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