berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Wed Feb 19 12:05:22 EST 1997
CANADIAN RESEARCH FUNDING
More research dollars allocated in the new Canadian
Federal Budget. A new Funding Agency is created,
additionally to the existing ones.
BAD (OR PERHAPS QUESTIONABLE) NEWS:
There is no clear guarantee that the new money will
be used efficiently or end up in where it needed
The following article was published in THE HAMILTON
SPECTATOR (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada) on Wednesday,
February 19, 1997 - next day the Canadian Government
announced its budget for the next fiscal year. The
budget provides some impressive increase of the
research funding to the universities. Nevertheless,
this positively sounding news, will undoubtedly be
taken by many with a doze of scepticism, in view of
the fundamental defects of the grant allocation
system. The following article summarizes the main
(but not all) reasons for such scepticism.
We encourage re-posting of this article, and a broad
discussion of the points it raises. It will be
especially interesting to hear from the current (and
past) members of the Grant Selection Panels of MRC,
NSERC, and SSHRC and other funding agencies (including
NIH, NSF, etc).
The HAMILTON SPECTATOR article:
BETTER RESEARCH SPENDING, NOT MORE
By Alexander Berezin and Richard Gordon
RESEARCH FUNDING AGENCIES NEED TO DO A FAIRER
JOB BEFORE THEY CAN JUSTIFY SPENDING MORE MONEY,
PROFESSORS FROM McMASTER AND UNIVERSITY OF
The biggest sources of research funding for universities
are the three federal Research Funding Councils, the
Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council
(NSERC), the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Councils (SSHRC).
A new source, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation,
was announced in yesterday's budget, to provide money
to modernize research facilities.
The widespread impression is that the Councils do their
best to foster research excellence and innovation and
that the only problem they have is the insufficient
level of government funding.
Unfortunately, there are fundamental flaws in the
operating methods of the research councils that reduce
their efficiency in supporting excellence. The same
may be true of the new foundation, which a budget
document says will "draw on the expertise and peer
review assessment procedures of the granting councils".
The councils themselves have admitted that many
researchers receive evaluations of excellence, but
nevertheless do not receive funding because the
granting agencies run out of funds before getting to
their particular excellent proposal.
Determining which of two excellent proposals will be
funded and which goes unfunded is never easy. This
means that committees must decide who is funded and
who isn't based on differences that are largely
irrelevant to the potential contribution of a
particular proposed research project.
There are two possible solutions. The first would be
to provide enough funding that all excellent programs
get funding at the level requested by the applicants.
This is clearly impossible in our current political
state of restraint. Since the pie is limited, perhaps
what we should be asking is, are we managing the pie
and the cutting the pieces fairly ? To that we must
give a resounding no.
According to its latest report, the MRC approves
about 600 new grants a year, but is currently turning
down another 350 proposals that meet its standards of
excellence. The question than boils down to the
following: If you have 600 + 350 = 950 proposals
a year which satisfy MRC standards of excellence,
what stops MRC from funding them all ? Of course,
without additional money for grants, this will
mean that the average grant size should drop to
600/950 = 63 per cent of the present average. But
then there would be no excellent researchers
A reduction to 63 per cent may appear severe to
the already funded researcher. But for the
researcher who gets nothing now, that amount
would be considered a great boon.
FUND ALL EXCELLENT PROPOSALS
Tough as it appears, this simple change would allow
all "excellent" researchers to be funded and implement
at least the top of their research priorities.
Furthermore, because greater scarcity will undoubtedly
result in a much more careful setting of priorities,
the overall quality of research is likely to increase,
not decrease, and all "excellent" projects will be
funded on at least some level, instead of the present
absurd situation when about one third of all
"excellent" researchers get nothing.
This is the first thing the Councils should do before
asking the government for "more money". Those who are
presently involved in the campaign for "more money to
Funding Councils", should ask the councils' presidents
what are the guarantees that "extra" money will be
used to fund the presently unfunded, instead of being
distributed among those who are already well-funded.
The present structure of the Funding Councils provides
no such guarantees.
The existing composition of Funding Councils is such
that the key members of the grant selection panels are
grant recipients themselves. Despite assurances of the
contrary, this constitutes a fundamental conflict
Those who decide how to cut the pie are in a position
to be tempted to ensure they get their own piece first.
Members of NSERC committees are required to step out
of the meeting room when their own grant applications
are discussed. However, this is hardly convincing.
There is still the temptation - or perception of the
opportunity - to play a game "I fund you, you fund
me" with fellow committee members. Cases of committee
members being denied grants are virtually unheard of.
We believe that the prime reason for denying small
operating grants to scores of excellent researchers
is the proven fact that many of them can do good
research on small budgets. The per-dollar efficiency
of many small scale projects is actually much higher
than for many well funded (or overfunded) elite groups.
Therefore, it is politically safer for the system to
leave many capable scientists completely unfunded
instead of giving them small grants. Many unfunded
researchers manage to do a high quality research on
cash taken from their personal salaries. But because
they are "officially unfunded" ("non-persons" in
George Orwell's terminology), their contributions
are not figured into overall NSERC reporting. This
makes the fact of their research activity less
threatening to the grantsmanship establishment.
The above defects can and should be corrected without
any "new money". We need restoration of the "arms
length" principle that those who distribute the
research funds should not themselves be the
beneficiaries of the funding system.
This would be a first step in the right direction
towards more productive and efficient use of Canadian
research dollars. Only then will we be able to
determine if we really have genuine research
underfunding, or just poor management of available
Alexander Berezin is a professor of engineering
physics at McMaster University. Richard Gordon
is a professor of Radiology at the University of
(end of HAMILTON SPECTATOR article)
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