Comment on NSERC

Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Mon Apr 21 10:56:53 EST 1997


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Below is a letter from a senior Canadian professor 
Re: NSERC funding policies. It confirms what we are
saying all along - that we are dealing with
self-centered, self-propelling, self-funding inner 
club (... some more precise terms can be used here 
but I refrain ...). 

Because this letter came as a private mail I have 
to remove identifying info, all the rest is left 
"as is". Alex Berezin

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Dear Dr. Berezin,

Congratulations on your letter to Nature (March 20, 
1997, p. 212 - A.B.). So many of us feel concern 
about the way in which the grant selection committees 
operate. It was gratifying to see the issues brought 
out in your letter and to have them spelled out 
for all to see in Nature.
 
I agree that an alternative arrangement is needed for
handling of research funds. An "arms length" arrangement 
should be established for the distribution of NSERC funds. 
My concerns over the years about the present arrangements 
are as follow:

i. The way in which new members are invited to fill
vacancies on the grant selection committee. It seems that 
former research students and research collaborators join 
the committee at the bequest of those leaving. This results 
in a collective memory which continues from one committee 
to the next. How are new members voted onto the 
committee ? - just what are the procedures ? If we stick 
to the present system, should we have a national vote on 
who is elected to the grant selection committees ? 

ii. There seems to be a tendency for the recycling of old
committee members onto the committee. This is a very 
dangerous precedent. I shall soon be asking NSERC to provide 
me with a listing of the members of the (... discipline 
named - AB...) grant selection committee for the last fifteen
years. I know that old members have rejoined the committee 
but the extent to which this happens is not too clear. What 
about Engineering or the MRC committees ? Perhaps you can 
comment on this. 

iii. Who actually chooses the external referees for the
individual proposals ? It would be interesting to find out if
procedures are consistent from one committee to another.

iv. There seems to be a very parochial attitude to science,
at least within the (... discipline ...). A colleague of 
mine, whose NSERC grant was actually cut to zero, was told 
by a member of the visiting site committee that some of his
papers were only letters to Nature !! I've had my name on 
eight papers to Nature, I've written two News and Views 
articles, I've a standing invitation to review any book
for Nature, but this doesn't seem to cut any ice with any 
of the selection committees.

v. Are there objective criteria that are used to evaluate
the grant applications ? These should be public information. 

Before your letter appeared in Nature I was thinking of
composing a letter to the head of NSERC asking for some
clarification about the Grant Selection Committees, - how 
they operate, how members are chosen, etc., etc. and 
overall expressing my concern about the way in which
monies are given out. I suspect that there are many 
Canadian researchers who feel as we do, that the Grant 
Selection Committee has a vested interested (and not for 
the right reasons) in the distribution of research funds. 
I wholeheartedly agree with you that those who distribute 
NSERC research funds should not be beneficiaries 
themselves.

An interesting excercise might be to find out if any 
members of the Grant Selection Committees have ever had 
their grants cut. I somehow doubt it.

I wonder how your letter was received by the rest of the
Canadian research community. Did you have any feedback ? 
Perhaps something can be organized that would spell out 
the concerns of the Canadian researchers directly to the 
head of NSERC. Your letter was an excellent first
start. Where do we go from here?

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