Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Wed Feb 19 12:05:22 EST 1997



More research dollars allocated in the new Canadian 
Federal Budget. A new Funding Agency is created,
additionally to the existing ones.


There is no clear guarantee that the new money will 
be used efficiently or end up in where it needed 
the most.        

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).

Alexander Berezin,
McMaster University,
Hamilton, Ontario  



By Alexander Berezin and Richard Gordon


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 
without funds.

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. 


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 
of interest. 

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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