Canadian NSERC: funding policy

Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Mon Sep 16 13:22:32 EST 1996

The following are the reply send to a member
of NSERC Grant Selection pannel who has
requested clarifications about the Sliding 
Funding Scale suggested by Donald Forsdyke.

I felt, the reply may be of interest to many
others and thus decided to post it.
Alex Berezin

Dear Dr...,

Thanks for experssing some interest in our
proposals and Forsdyke's Sliding Scale.

Below this comment I attach two more files,
the first are "NSERC QUOTES" (delails are 
explained there), the second are the "REFERENCES" 
with references on peer review and funding issues
with (some) of Forsdyke's papers listed.

However, I can explain his scheme in brief:

In essence, Forsdyke's idea is pretty straight.
At first glance one may even say that it is 
"almost" the same as the NSERC's present funding 
scheme. Almost, but not quite. Let me explain 
the difference. 

Forsdyke starts from the obvious premis that all
university professors who are active in research,
should be given SOME opertaing funds to do their 
work. Very few peopele, if any, will dispute this 
_in principle_ (after all, the expectancy of doing
research is #1 reason why almost all of us were 
hired in the first place). Of course, what exactly
means "to do research" has some dergee of 
subjectivity, and there are some few odd cases, 
but they are pretty rare and certainly nowhere near
35-40 % which is presently the unfunding (NIL) rate
in science and engineering.

Now we got to the real problem. Beacause for the vast 
majority of university researchers NSERC is the ONLY 
funding source, and because it runs a single-grant 
(operating) system, the above means that the prime 
requiremnt (that the research activity needs some, 
let basic, operating funding) is not satisfied by 
NSERC. As a government organization, NSERC simply 
fails its mandate (to fund Canadian university 
professors doing research in science and enginering), 
in the same way as a would-be school system which 
would refuse to enroll 1/3 of all students of the
the proper age.

(NSERC would probably be a bit closer to it if 
it had a multiple operating grants system, as NSF or 
NIH have, but for some reason [ or without it ]
NSERC allows only one operating grant per person).

Forsdyke proposes grant ranking on the combined 
scores on a track record (TR) and the proposals 
(P). He suggests that TR and P ranking is done by 
different peer reviewers, to mimimize the errors 
and achieve some kind of a robust score. Because
of this, he calls this 'bicameral review' (as if
two separtae evaluating chambers assess TR and P). 
You can loose on one side and still maintain on
the other.

Only in those (undoubtedly, rare) cases when 
the scores are clearly below the minimal passing 
threshold on BOTH counts of TR and P scores, there 
is a justification for a NIL grant. Overwise, it 
is a finite and the amount is defined by some 
weigthing combination of components. It appears 
almost like the present scheme, but the 
similarity is misleading because in NSREC it
largely translates into a yes-no scheme.

And don't worry for the total NSERC budget: if
the sliding scale is introduced, there is likely
to be a lot more downgradings of grants than
upgradings. I know, some will likely to see this
prospect as an unpleasant one, but that's where 
the housecleaning is ought to be done.

In short, Forsdyke proposes to replace the present 
step-function scale with a sigmoid (sliding) scale. 
With a sigmoid scale people can move up and 
down, depending on the performance, there is a 
dynamical feedback to their actual work. Not so in 
the present (NIL) system. The latter does not really 
provide a constructive fedback. For as long as you 
are a good boy, you are funded, but once you have 
stumbled (got NIL, often for a minor criticism), you 
are disrobed and (almost always) forever. Cases of 
return are quite rare. As you know, the present 
figure is about 30 % NILs, but ADD TO THIS those 
people (actually, very many !) who after few 
attempts are simply giving up and no longer apply 
for NSERC grants. Even at McMaster (which is a very 
research-intensive univeristy), there are several 
NILs in practically every science and engineering 
department, and one should have a pretty weird 
imagination to classify all of them as a dead wood.

There are several superficial "explanations" which
NSERC administartion uses to justify the rejection
of sigmoind scheme while insisting on the 
selectivity principle. I can go at length on all of 
these "reasons", but in summary, all of them are 
unsupportable by facts and/or logic and are
In my (and Forsdyke's, and many others) view, the 
most detrimentally wrong thing about NSERC is that 
it is calling its funding panels, GSC, grant SELECTION 
committees. It's not to say that there should be no 
NIL awards at all (certainly, there will be some, we 
are not inviting research welfare system), but the 
very fact that this term (selectivity) is used in
a TITLE of a structural unit (granting panel) sends 
an utterly distorted, wrong message. What if we call 
PhD defence committees a "doctorare SELECTION 
tribunal" ? (despite, that in pactice, yes, some 
defences do occasionally fail).

One may say, who cares which words are used.
Does it really matter ? Unfortunately, it does, and
a lot. As you may or may not believe (I do), this 
is a classical case when the (wrong) WORD forms 
a (wrong) REALITY.

The main assumption (also deadly wrong) which NSERC 
sells in this connection is their assertion that 
"small grants are useless" and hence it is better to 
dephase "problematic" people altogether than to give 
them small (say $ 5,000 to $ 7,000 per annum ) grants. 

(of course, it will be much cheaper for the 
hospitals to send patients to the gas chambers 
than to treat them: a same kind of philosophy).

In the "NSERC QUOTES" attached below there is a 
compilations of remarks (circulated by e-mail
earlier) from the responses we (CARRF: Canadian 
Association for Resposnsible Research Funding) 
have received from all over the country. This was 
circulated a while ago. We are still receiveng 
new comments, but we did not update this compilation 
for a long time.

You perhaps may especially notice the last quote 
(# 21). This is from another GSC member. I am 
certain that he is quite correct in indicating 
the pressures from NSERC administartion to be
even more selective, the pressures which some 
individual GSC members apparently resist and 
would prefer much lesser NIL rate.
I wonder, what your comments on this would be.

To conclude, I don't see that anything truly 
positive can emerge unless and until GSCs will 
be renamed to GRC, Grant RANKING Committees 
(or equivalent term) and the ACTUAL POLICY will 
be changed correspondingly. NIL awards should 
rarity, in the most acute cases only. Furthermore,
those who are NILed should be given very specific
reasons and objectives to meet and if efforts to
meet them are evident in the next applications, 
they should be given probationary awards. Almost 
all systems in our society operate on this 
Overwise, finite awards must be given. No grant
is too small (who ever refused to accept a grant,
because it was "too small" ?).

I (and many others) frankly don't see most other
NSERC-run activities (like 'realocations') as 
having too much real value unless the NIL probem 
is resolved as a first priority, by Forsdyke's 
method or else. Who is going to get busy on a 
redecorating of the house and landscaping when
one third of the building is in a collapsed 
state ? The NIL problem is thus a number one 
issue you (GSC members) have to work on 
collectively with the NSERC administartion.

Alex Berezin

The following are some quotes from the responses 
received by Berezin and Hunter regarding their 
two publications:

1) "Open Letter to Canadian researchers - funding 
system needs reforms" (CAUT bulletin, February 1994, 
page 15) (CAUT= Canadian Association of the
University Teachers) 

2) "Myth of Competition and NSERC Policy of 
"Selectivity" (Canadian Chemical News, March 1994,

[1] ...  I received your newsletter through the 
Faculty of Medicine which is circulating it here. 
Most colleagues agree with your sentiments. 
Good luck ! 

   Professor of Medical Sciences, Western Canada     


[2] ... As an NSERC grantee, I fully support your 
idea of creating the Canadian Association for 
Responsible research Funding. I would be pleased to 
be a member of this Association. 

      Professor of Physics, Ontario 


[3] ... I would like to consider constucting a case 
for the damage done to unity of Geography by NSERC 
policy of discriminative funding ... 

      Professor of Geography, Ontario


[4] ... We are behind you 100 % ... In my department 
people in [one group] are so much funded, that they 
cannot even spend all their money, while other people 
working in basic research (with much higher level of
productivity) are not funded at all or very little. 
It is a shame that our scientific community is 
manipulated by an irresponsible and selfish clique 
backed by scientifically illiterate bureaucrats.
It is time to act ! 

     Chairperson,  Science department,  Quebec


[5] ... As one of my collegues recently stated, you 
never propose anything that is innovative to NSERC 
because they'll surely cut you off.  

     Professor of Engineering,  Windsor 


[6] I support the formation of the Canadian Association 
for Responsible Research Funding, and wish to be 
associated with you in your endeavours... 

     Professor of Philosophy,  Ontario


[7] Congratulations for your excellent article on NSERC
policies and your proposals for reform. Well done ! 
I totally agree with the need for reforms along the lines 
you suggest. ... Enclosed is my article which makes the 
case for "useless" research ... If I can help the cause 
in any way, please let me know.

     Professor of Mathematics,  Quebec


[8] Dear Professor Berezin,

It is with great joy and enthusiasm that I have read 
your news on the canadain Association for Responsible 
Research Funding ... I can only applaud your efforts 
and would like to get involved, if possible ... 
I wish you much success in your quest for justice 
and democracy for all and I'll appreciate keeping me 
informed (and involved) on future developments 
[2 page letter]

     Professor of Physics,  Alberta


[9] I fully support your aims and share your concerns ...
     Professor,  McMaster      


[10] ... it is very easy to ostrich out from the issues 
which concern Hunter and Berezin, while under the
publish-or-perish threat... to have a really original 
ideas about [area of research] is to place oneself in 
a position of academic suicide, since it is unlikely 
to be perceived as relevant by a peer review committee ... 

      Professor,  Biomedical sciences, Ontario


[11] Thank goodness sombody has at last started this 
Society ! ... We must get back to the fundamental idea 
that all univerisy researchers should be funded for 
INDIVIDUAL RESEARCH. We must stop referees from deciding 
that if you are not in a center of excellence your ideas 
and work must be inferior. We must separate the research 
grants from the support of graduate students ...


       Professor of Science,  McGill


[12] I believe that it is more cost effective to support 
more researchers at low funding levels than fewer 
researechers at high funding levels ... I don't believe 
that funding a greatefr number of scientists would result 
in mediocre research. The peer review system of journals 
will certainly help to maintain standards. If the
"publish-or-perish" attitude can be broken, I suspect 
that the quality of research would actually increase. 
Many researchers would likely prefer to publish fewer 
but more substantial papers ...

     Professor and Chaiperson (Biomedical),  
     Maritimes university


[13] I promised myself not to write any more on a 
subject about which I have already payed my dues. 
However, Berezin's and Hunter's "Myth" ... has pushed 
me again into that old sin: writing. My first suggestion 
was to change the name of GSC, "Grant Selection 
Committee" into more appropriate one: GRANT SEGREGATION

     Professor and dean,  Maritime university 


[14] I want to congratulate you for your article. I found 
the article well written, appropriate and right on target. 
I feel that Canada is wasting a tremendous amount of 
research talent because of the presently ill-conceived 
funding system that leaves the door open to any kind of 
nepotism and corruption ... I hope that you will be able 
to set up an independent study group to monitor NSERC 
activities. It is about time that we have a breath of 
fresh air in this field.

     Professor of Science,  Concordia 


[15] Dear Dr. Hunter:
Bravo to you and to Dr. Berezin for your commentary ...
... too much bureaucracy, too many committees ... They ...
don't give a damn for the quality of a researcher but 
judging solely by his confirming to the present day fads ...

      Professor of Science,  Universite de Montreal


[16] I just read your letter in the CAUT Bulletin. 
I greatly appreciate this very timely contribution and 
strongly support the views you express ... I would be 
most happy to help...  
 Professor of Science, Ottawa


[17] Dear Dr. Berezin,
First of all I must compliment you and Dr.Hunter for some
truly innivative ideas regarding funding of academic 
researchers by NSERC and other agencies ... I believe it 
is unnecessary to fund so-called productive researchers 
to a very high level. By definition, such research should 
have no problem obtaining funds from other sources ... 

     Professor of Engineering,  McGill                   


[18] Dear Alexander and Geoffrey:
I respond to your "Open Letter". First a note of thanks 
for your time and dedication. After reading it I felt
intantaneously better and I would even dare to hope that 
things might change if a dedicated group sets to work 
on it. The policies of censorship, suppression of 
innovative thought, reduction of our intellect by a 
staightjacket of "fundability" imposed on us by NSERC 
in the name of "excellence" are real ... The total 
lack of free exchange of opinion and enforced confirmity 
to the mainstream is indeed the consequence of NSERC power
politics. I find this academic environment oppressive and
intimidating and the need to shut-off one's intellect and
creativity, in order not to alienate the mainstremers that 
include the mamagement, a severe price to pay for survival ... 
I agree wholeheartedly with (and support) all the points 
you made in your letter ...  

     Professor of Science, Winnipeg


[19] Dear Professors Berezin and Hunter:
We read with great interest your letter (CAUT bulletin). 
Both of us are in accord with the ideas that you expressed;
indeed we have often voiced them ourselved with local
colleaugues. You may consider publishing this letter in 
the Globe and Mail to bring the issue to the most appropriate
audience - the taxpayers across the nation ... We fully 
support your endeavour and will continue to provide you 
with any information which comes our way.

   Two professors of biomedical sciences,  Toronto 


[20] Dear Professor Berezin:
Your recent E-mail message was forwarded to me by a 
colleague. Having read that, and the previous letter in 
the CAUT Bulletin, I am writin to tell you that I agree
wholeheartedly with the views expressed in both ... I am
certainly enthusiastic about joining your association.
... I just hope that the proposed association is not "too
little too late" as I, and many of my colleagues, are 
thoroughly disillusioned and disappointed in the way that
research funding is allocated in Canada and are actually
contemplating leaving research and/or Canada. As you 
rightly point out, any attempt to discuss the matter 
objectively is met with the "well, its the best system 
in the world" response and is either ignored or
suppressed ....
You have my full support in your efforts to get an equitable
system in this country and if there is anything I can do to 
help, please let me know. Good luck.    

  Professor and Chair (biosciences),  Maritime university


[21] I think the majority (overhelming majority) of the
scientific community is in broad agreement with you ... 
First on the matter of small grants. The pressure from 
the NSERC bureaucracy on the GSC to be more selective 
is enormous and they keep telling us that every small 
grant we award will affect our future funding ... The 
unelected dictatorship is the NSERC bureaucracy 
itself ... there is no support for pure research 
in NSERC ...   

   Professor of science,  current member 
   of NSERC committee



The above quotes are just a small sampling from 
over 150 letters and e-mail messages received by 
Hunter and Berezin since the founding of CARRF 
(May, 1994).

Most letters are unquestionably supportive to the 
CARRF initiative. The only exception are some few 
e-mail messages (3 or 4) which can be qualified as 
a "shut up" hate mail. Invariably, they were from 
well funded elitarian grantees, usually members of 
Grant Selection Committees who have vested interests
in keeping the selectivity system (their system)
as it is. This, however, should not imply that all 
GSC members are against CARRF objective. In fact, 
several very supportive letters were obtained from 
GSC members (former or active) who naturally asked 
not to be quoted under their names. One such quote 
(# 21 above) points that NSERC bureaucracy resists 
the awards of small grants, contrary to the wishes 
of many GSC members. Some of the above quoted people 
actually had no objections to be publicly quoted 
under their true names. However, for the purpose 
of uniformity, I have decided to provide this 
compendium anonymously. The latter should not be 
seen as my agreement with the principle of anonymous 
peer review assessment which, I believe, is one of 
the most damaging misconceptions in science.

Berezin, A. A. (1993). The SSC and peer review. Physics World 
(Dec.), 19. 

Berezin, A. A., R. Gordon & G. Hunter (1995). Anonymous peer   
     review and the QWERTY effect. Amer. Physics Soc. News,  
     March 1995. 

Berezin, A. A. & G. Hunter (1994). Myth of competition and NSERC
     policy of selectivity. Canadian Chemical News  46(3), 4-5. 

Forsdyke, D. R. (1983). Canadian medical research strategy for    
     the Eighties I. Damage-limitation or superelitism? Med.      
     Hypotheses  11, 141-145. 

Forsdyke, D. R. (1983). Canadian medical research strategy for    
     the Eighties II. Promise or performance as the basis for the 
     distribution of research funds? Med. Hypotheses  11,         

Forsdyke, D. R. (1989). Sudden-death funding system. FASEB J.     
     3(10), 2221. 

Forsdyke, D. R. (1989). A systems analyst asks about AIDS         
     research funding. Lancet  2(December 9), 1382-1384. 

Forsdyke, D. R. (1991). Bicameral grant review: an alternative to 
     conventional peer review. FASEB J.  5, 2312-2314. 

Forsdyke, D. R. (1992). Bicameral grant review: how a systems     
     analyst with AIDS would reform research funding.
     Accountability in Research  3, 1-5. 

Forsdyke, D. R. (1993). On giraffes and peer review. FASEB J.  7, 

Forsdyke, D. R.(1994). Authorship and misconduct. Nature 370, 91. 

Forsdyke, D. R. (1994). A theoretical basis for accepting         
     undergraduate academic record as a predictor of subsequent   
     success in a research career. Implications for peer review.  
     Accountability in Research  3, 269-274. 

Gordon, R. (1993). Grant agencies versus the search for truth. 
     Accountability in Research: Policies and Quality Assurance   
     2, 1-5. 

Gordon, R. (1993). Alternative reviews. University Affairs        
     (Assoc.of Universities and Colleges of Canada) 34(6), 26. 

Horrobin, D. (1981/1982). Peer review: Is the good the enemy of   
     the best?  J. Res. Communic. Stud.  3, 327-334. 

Horrobin, D. F. (1990). The philosophical basis of peer review    
     and the suppression of innovation. J. Amer. Med. Assoc.      
     263(10), 1438-1441. 

Kenward, Michael. (1984). Peer review and the axe murderers",
     New Scientist, 102 (1412), p. 13 (31 May, 1984). 

McCutchen, Charles W. (1991). Peer Review: Treacherous Servant,
     Disastrous Master. Technology Review, vol. 94, #7,  
     (October 1991), 28-40.

Osmond, D. H. (1983). Malice's Wonderland: research funding and   
     peer review. J. Neurobiol.  14(2), 95-112.

Savan, Beth. (1990). Science Under Siege (The Myth of             
     Objectivity in Scientific Research, CBC Enterprises,         
     Toronto, 1988. 

Szent-Gyorgyi, Albert. (1972). Dionysians and                     
      Apollonians, Science, 176, 966 (1972).


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