Tuesday, July 26, 2011

And now a word from our sponsors (repost)

(This post was originally published in March, but was taken down as -- unknown to me at the time -- the results of the Discovery competition were under embargo. Now that the results are public, I'm republishing the post.)

NSERC Discovery results came out yesterday.  This is the program that supports almost all of the curiosity-driven, non-industrial, basic science and engineering research in the country.  It's generally not a huge amount of money -- enough to pay 1-2 graduate students is typical.  But most Canadian professors hold one, and it probably pays the salary of the majority of Canada's science and engineering graduate students.

Just now, a summary of the competition landed in my inbox.  By now, the "new regime" of Discovery funding is well known: applications are assigned a quality score, and a pot of money is assigned to each score value, divided among the applications with that value; below some score the amount is zero.  Applications are now "memoryless", meaning that the status and funding level of your last application have no bearing on your current application (I would argue this is bad for all kinds of reasons, but that's another discussion. See Ghoussoub's excellent blog for detailed summaries and a discussion of what's going on with NSERC.)

But the following details were interesting:

For the 2011 DG competition, the EGs reviewed 3,482 individual and team applications. The results, by category of applicants, are as follows:
  • The percentage of early career researchers receiving a first grant is 54 percent, surpassing NSERC’s target of 50 percent. The average grant is $22,481.
  • The success rate for established researchers renewing a grant is 74 percent. The average grant is $35,045.
  • The success rate for established researchers who did not hold a grant in 2010 is 33 percent, with an average grant of $28,082.
I had an application in this round -- I won't say what I got, but I will note that I did get a grant (huge relief!).

Target or no, 54% for first-time applicants is remarkably small.  Discovery is one of the few programs that is realistic for an early-career researcher; most of the others require industrial collaborators, which are hard for new professors to cultivate.  Further, first-time applicants are facing a ticking tenure clock, and need to get graduate students in the door as quickly as possible -- and they need money to do that.

These numbers also indicate that the amount of the average first-time grant is remarkably high; generally more than one would need to employ a single student.  To me, it would make more sense to spread the money around more evenly, to give early-stage researchers a chance to make their careers.

Also remarkably low is the renewal rate.  Of the 26% who didn't get a renewal (comprising, I would estimate, hundreds of researchers), I would bet there are plenty who now have no way to fund their graduate students.

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