Question on Research funding in Canada?
berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Fri Jan 26 19:11:12 EST 1996
On Fri, 26 Jan 1996, David Mannock wrote:
> Fellow researchers,
> I would appreciate some feedback on this post by email if possible.
> As a research associate (research assistant professor) who is expected
> to write or make major contributions to my employers operating grants,
> I recently found an industrial/academic granting program which was open
> worldwide to all investigators (both principle investigators and
> postdoctoral fellows). I duly sent in a preproposal and was invited to
> submit a full proposal. I asked my department chair whether I was
> permitted to apply for such funding independently of my employer and
> was told that I was eligible as my position was considered to
> be at least semi-independent and so proceeded with the application.
> I was eager to branch out on my own as I had already made major
> contributions together with another colleague to operating grants in my
> employers name on at least two occasions in the last year. Also, such
> grant applications are a good addition to ones CV , as one cannot
> really state that it was actually oneself who wrote MRC
> or NSERC grant ####### (the system would find that a little to
> difficult to swallow, I think). Anyway, I obtained the chairs signature
> on this document only to be told by the deans representative that I was
> not eligible to apply for such funding. The reason given to me was a
> technicality. Apparently the university where I am employed has legally
> binding contracts with its tenured faculty making them responsible for
> any over expenditure and that such contracts did not
> extend to people such as myself. Thus, at the 11th hour, I was
> forced into making a decision about whether I should shred the grant
> there and then, or once again get my employer to co-sign the
> application. I was reluctant to do this,
> but agreed to it as the purpose of the grant was as much to obtain
> money for the
> lab in these difficult times (something I frequently hear tenured faculty
> whining about over coffee) as it was to be a little more independent. In my
> despare I asked a well known colleague at one of the top US ivy-league
> universites if this was common practice and was promptly told that this was
> clearly a politically motivated hurdle and that it was absurd to
> prevent people
> such as myself, with my own independent reputation (so I am told)
> from applying
> for such things (so much for entrepreneurship in Canadian science).
> My question is this. Is this a common practice in all Canadian
> Universities? If it is, why is this so? Clearly the European and US
> universities are taking a much broader view in these financially
> strapped times realising that it is often impossible
> for faculty members to employ people such as myself on one or two small to
> medium sized operating grants. I realise I don't yet belong to this
> elite club,
> but surely tenured academics are not that insecure that they need
> to desperately
> manipulate the system to undermine the careers of their juniors.
> Or are they?
> You tell me. Email to Dave at the above address. Thanks in advance.
The operating manual of NSERC funding system in Canada is to
provide generous (usually excessive) funding to the members of
the inner club (you-fund-me-I-fund-you principle), give some
peanuts to (randomly selected) few [ to dilute the dissent ]
and to cut as many as possible to zero funding. And you are
right: most people don't object the system: they are either
happy (funded) or too intimidated to voice the protest.
Below are 2 of our eariler papers giving some more details
on the 'philosophy' and practice of this system.
Best wishes - Alex Berezin
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).
GUEST EDITORIAL (published in international journal
"Drying Technolgy", vol. 13 (1&2), 1995).
RESEARCH FUNDING: SOME MYTHS
Alexander A. Berezin (1) and Geoffrey Hunter (2)
(1) Department of Engineering Physics,
McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario,
Canada, L8S 4L7
(2) Chemistry Department, York University,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M3J 1P3
World-wide network of univeristy research is one of
the major pillars of the modern civilization. Despite that
research and intellectual potential is, of course, not
entirely confined to university campuses, the economical,
social and cultural progress of today is unthinkable
without an open forum for new ideas facilitated and
validated by the international community of university
scholars. Therefore, the problem of balanced support for
university research within the realm of available means,
despite its appearence as a "local" problem, gains the
level of international significance.
Numerous critics, speaking primarily of recent
evolution of the North American model of university
research funding, have indicated damaging consequences
of ferocious competition for funds which are externally
"justified" by the presumption that such strategy fosters
"excellence" in research. At first glance the idea of
"excellence through competition" seems reasonable. It is
easy to sell to politicians and general public. After all,
if it works for business deals or Olympic games why it
should not work for science ? However, as it often happens,
the argument fails by extension. The problem is that the
currently practiced regulating mechanisms of the externally
monitored competition in science ("grant selection") are
based on several underlying fallacies (myths) briefly
MYTH OF "EXCELLENCE". Despite a nice sound, a careful
scrutiny of this term turns it to an empty clause. The true
measure of the long range impact of research is its
originality, NOT its apparent "soundness" and conformity to
currently dominant paradigms. A truly innovative research
proposal is unlikely to attract a smooth approval by grant
awarding committee or get high peer review marks. By the
very way these judges are presently selected they tend to
be "paradigm keepers" rather than genuine innovation
searchers. Of course, no defence system is perfect and some
truly innovative reasearch "slips through" and gets funded,
especially if the applicants use proper decoys in their
grant applications. Nevertheless, many academic critics,
e.g., Nobel Prize laureate Albert Szent-Gyorgyi , have
pointed out that such fortunate occurences happen AGAINST
the dominant gradient of general suspicion (and often open
intolerance) to new ideas which is typical for almost any
committee of pre-appointed "experts". The viable alternative
to it is to fund RESEARCHERS (not proposals !) on the basis
of their overall record. Such a reform, however, will be
at odds with the present American project-oriented funding
model and also it will diminish the power of the
paper-shuffling bureaucracy and grantsmanship elite.
Therefore the idea "fund researchers, not proposals"  is
fiercely resisted by the research bureaucracy.
MYTH OF IMPARTIAL PEER REVIEW. "Impartial peer review"
was, for example, recently stressed in the policy document
"Partnership in Knowledge" issued by the Natural Sciences
and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). By
definition, peers are those who are themselves activly
involved in the area. Consequently, they are never free
from vested interests in it. While it is, of course, true
that not all of them are evil or dishonest, with all good
will in the world they can't be "impartial". The benefit of
the doubt, therefore, should be with an applicant and a
reasonable implementation of it is a sliding funding scale
, not a policy of sharp cut-offs (pop-philosophy of
"winners and loosers") which is presently the basis of
funding ideology of NSERC and other federal funding agencies
in Canada and USA. The social purpose of funding agencies
is to ASSIST the university research, they SHOULD NOT have
de facto mandates of directing or controlling the paths of
free inquiry. Their present trend, however, is towards
precisely the latter - a direct result of the bureaucratic
takeover in any unjustifably blown-up agency.
MYTH OF "SUPERFUNDING FOR SUPER-RESEARCH". This is
another, seemingly sensible, but in essence perverted,
extrapolation of a business model to science. This myth has
1) the "most promising" research with the best future
"impact factor" CAN be correctly identified (by peer
reviewers, expert panels, boards of directors, or whatever),
2) putting "more money" into the so identified "excellent"
research is bound to make it even "more excellent".
The first item is wishful thinking based on a presumption
of a "collective wisdom" of expert committees, the second is
based on traditional american aberration that "money can buy
everything". This is not just plainly naive, but also very
costly socially as it leads to an unwarranted overfunding of
many "polically correct" research activities like targetted
mega-projects, "centers of excellence", etc. This myth
bluntly ignores all crucial non-monetary constraints of any
genuine research. In reality, even Albert Einstein, whose
grant is suddenly increased from, say, $ 50,000 per year
to $ 200,000 per year WILL NOT produce "four times as many
discoveries". On the contrary, his real productivity will
likely drop due to additional paperwork, new commitments,
etc. Yes, some modest bonus of, say, 30-50 % above average
for a "really good" (by whichever criteria) research may be
quite appropriate. However, the systematic policy of
preferential (over)funding of some "selected" groups at the
expense of zero "awards" to scores of other equally decent
researchers is nothing short of an arbitrary ideological
apartheid. Its consequences are especially damaging for
the moral of the younger generation of university
The typical university research program normally evolves
as a result of complicated ("nonlinear") interaction of
personal motivations of researchers and a web of social,
micro-political and financial aspects of a specific research
case. Rich spectrum of personal motivations can range from
the pure humility of research curiosity and selfless quest
for truth to a pragmatic (but socially still quite
acceptable) aim of personal career gains and attaining the
sizable level of authority, influence and institutional
weight. In the present university reward system it is not
that rare that the latter traits detrimentally degenerate
to the obsession with power control or personal enrichment
It was mentioned earlier by E.Chargaff , the present
university system is based, to a large extent, on the
exploitation of the young: graduate students, postdocs,
assistant professors. So far, the major currency unit in
science is a "solid" peer-reviewed paper in a well acclaimed
mainstream journal. The more such units are accumulated, the
better is the bargining position in obtaining new funding,
hiring new postdocs, attracting even more new Ph.D. students,
etc. This vicious circle is self-serving and self-propelling.
The role model in today's academic science is "the boss" -
the head of a departmental mini-empire with 10 to 15 (above
listed) members of cheap research labour force with a net
output of some 20 to 40 papers per year. Though they are not
always entirely useless, the per-capita, per-paper
(and per-dollar) innovation effect of such super-groups is,
as a rule, much lower than of small groups, or even of many
In reality, the philosophy of "winners and loosers" has an
overall effect of a coercion of research into the avenue of
established paradigmas ("safe science") to satisfy the peer
reviewers and hence to assure the "fundability" of research
proposals . At the end of the day, it is the very idea
of the peer review-enforced "excellence" through a brutal
"selectivity" which is a sure route to a mediocrity, NOT THE
OTHER WAY AROUND. The bulk of historic data suggests that it
makes more sense to fund MORE researchers at LOWER level to
maintain their research base - many important discoveries were
made with quite modest funding. What history of science
clearly DOES NOT show it that the overfunding of
super-research is a guaranteed roller coster to
super-excellence . On the contary, numerous case studies
show that in accord with the universal Peter principle ,
super-funded research usually quickly gears to its level of
To make the whole process less hostile and more time- and
resource-efficient, the awards of research grants should
be based exclusively on the long-term track record of the
applicant. Special provisions of a small bona fide grants
can be left for the junior applicants. Under the present
rat-race "competition for excellence" a university professor
with, say, one or two well thought-through papers per year has
virtually no chance to obtain funding at ANY level.
Implementation of the scheme "fund researchers, not proposals"
not only will make the process of funding more democratic and
socially responsible. It will also greatly reduce the paperwork
and raise the overall efficiency of university research.
However, such reform will ALSO reduce the power base of the
grantsmanship elite. This is the prime reason why several
constructive proposals of this kind (e.g., [2,3] were bluntly
ignored by research funding bureaucracy.
While some ranking of applicants and grant amounts is, of
course, appropriate, the policy of mass "zeroing" of active
university scientists is not only anti-intellectual in its
essence, but also is clearly contrproductive socially and
economically. It is time to re-orient the university system from
the obsolete idea of "competition" (it fails to deliver anyway)
to the cooperation and "win-win" science game. But so far, in a
search for winners the system still follows an old prescription:
"The mass trials have been a great success, comrades. In the
future there will be fewer but better Russians." (Greta Garbo
in "Ninotchka", 1939).
 A. Szent-Gyorgyi, Science, 176, 966 (1972).
 A.A. Berezin and G. Hunter, Canadian Chemical News,
46 (#3), 4-5 (March 1994).
 D.R. Forsdyke, Nature, 312, 587 (1984).
 E. Chargaff, Persp.in Biol.& Medicine, 23, 370 (1980).
 B. Savan, Science Under Siege, CBC Enterprises,
 L.J.Peter and R.Hull, The Peter Principle, Bantam Books,
1969 (many other editions).
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