Research Funding: NSERC Reform (fwd)

Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Tue Mar 26 11:14:21 EST 1996

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 26 Mar 1996 11:10:57 -0500 (EST)
From: Alexander Berezin <berezin at mcmail.CIS.McMaster.CA>
To: Colin Rasmussen <colin at>
Cc: biocan at
Subject: Research Funding: NSERC Reform 

On Mon, 25 Mar 1996, Colin Rasmussen wrote:

> The prime problem with research nowadays is that there is 
> very little money put into it via the public sector because 
> governments see it as a low priority when the interest load 
> on the deficit eats up 35% of the budget and the cost of 
> education and health care require most of the rest.

Whatever the total amount may be (low, high, adequate),
the problem of distribution of available funds BETWEEN 
the researchers (professors) must be addressed first. 

Presently some people have enough funds to hire several 
full-time positions while many others have NIL. If there 
were just 5 % of unfunded each funding cycle this probably 
would be tolerable under the circumstances, but when 
the NIL rate is about 1/3 of the total number,
the message is clearly odd: it means that the system 
(NSERC) deems 1/3 of Canadian professors incompetent.

Will any-one  put up with a medical system in 
which 1/3 of all doctors are quakes ? Or an airline
company in which 1/3 of all pilotes are incompetent 
to fly ? But this is exactly what NSERC says to 
the Canadian university research community by keeping
NIL rate about 1/3 of all applicants.   

> The private sector funds research it sees as having a payoff in 
> the forseeable future, which is reasonable since they are in 
> it to make some money for their investors. 

> What someone needs to realize, both government and the 
> private sector is that without basic research the applied 
> stuff doesn't exist.

Apparently, private sector does not buy this statement and
happily runs without it. And, in the fact, the whole premiss
that 'applied research needs basic research in order to 
exist' is highly questionable in the present environment of
globalization. I am studying recent technological 
developments and see many evidences of the contrary. Many
companies which have (almost) no involvement with
basic resaerch proliferate, while those who are heavily
bound to it gradually sink. If you want specific
comparison take Microsoft and IBM. (There is a lot of recent 
literature of this topic).

And if scientists can't convince outside world that 
they (or rather their research) is so, than whose 
problem it is, after all ?

> I am curious as to what Dr. Berezin would put in place of 
> the current system. Who will decide where to put the money 
> for investment in research. 

As I (and others) ahve said, system needs adjustment at
two points:

(1) separate evaluation of proposals and track record,
with general tilt to de-emphasize peer review of 
proposals and put more empahsis on a track record.

(2) award of grant on the basis of sliding scale based
on the above (blended) ranking. This is what Donald
Forsdyke suggested as a 'sliding scale' scheme. This
will greatly reduce NIL rate, though cut top dippers.
This is what the latter (upper level) doesn't want 
to see happening.

In short, all what's need to be done can be summarized
in one sentense:

  "Replace present cut-off step function with a smooth
    (sigmoid) funding curve"  

You can slide (up or down) by a sigmoid curve, but
you can't do it with vertical slopes [ cut off
NIL scheme ] 

> Would you suggest politicians or the average person 
> (who has little scientific expertise) should be 
> deciding these things. 

It should be a blended (ballanced) decision in
which scientists should be not be given a full vote.

Model 'scientists are the best to decide on 
science investments' are largely bankrupt the
recent history and shows that ANY group of
scientists will be dragging in their own
direction (e.g. the story of feods BETWEEN
SCIENTISTS on the 'Superconducting 
Supercollider' in Texas).

> How can one be research-active without funding I ask ?  

The fact is that there is a LOT of good research done 
(and published) by unfunded people. There is even 
quite a lot of good work done by the unemployed and 
moonlighting scientists. But when others (often not 
much better) enjoy the privilege of being (generously) 
funded by the system which they run (largely) 
themselves, this makes the whole system utterly unfair.

So far, I have not seen a single evidence that
the frequently made claim "NSERC is about the best
funding system in the world" is nothing but 
a self-serving myth crated in Ottawa offices.
And if I am wrong: show me signs of INTERNATIONAL 
recognitin of this fact. (it is clear that if
the above is true, the world literature should
have not shortage of in-depth analyses of
this system, showing how good it is and 'why
we should adopt it as well'). 

> Maybe what this means is that we really have to re-evaluate 
> how many research scientists are supportable vs how many 
> academics are required to carry out the teaching mandate of the 
> universities. 

This is precisely what sliding scheme will do in a 
much less hostile way than the guilliotine of NIL
awards (present NSERC practice). People will 
slide down (and sometime climb up) depending of
their resualts, not how they are positioned 
with the system (and this is what the present system 
is doing, for as long as it uses 'selectivity' model as

> I think if this was examined you would find some rather 
> bloated faculties loaded down with tenured staff who 
> find little motivation to either become funded in order 
> to do more research or take on more teaching to allow those 
> who do research more time to maintain funding.

Give one single example of the above. 

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