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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Applying to NSERC? Everyone gets a grant!

According to a study done by Richard Gordon and Bryan J. Poulin, Cost of the NSERC Science Grant Peer Review System Exceeds the Cost of Giving Every Qualified Researcher a Baseline Grant. (NSERC is Canada's funding agency for non-medical science research.)
Using Natural Science and Engineering Research Council Canada (NSERC) statistics, we show that the $40,000 (Canadian) cost of preparation for a grant application and rejection by peer review in 2007 exceeded that of giving every qualified investigator a direct baseline discovery grant of $30,000 (average grant). This means the Canadian Federal Government could institute direct grants for 100% of qualified applicants for the same money. We anticipate that the net result would be more and better research since more research would be conducted at the critical idea or discovery stage. Control of quality is assured through university hiring, promotion and tenure proceedings, journal reviews of submitted work, and the patent process, whose collective scrutiny far exceeds that of grant peer review. The greater efficiency in use of grant funds and increased innovation with baseline funding would provide a means of achieving the goals of the recent Canadian Value for Money and Accountability Review. We suggest that developing countries could leapfrog ahead by adopting from the start science grant systems that encourage innovation.
This sounds like a good idea to me. Thanks to Bora Zivkovic of A Blog Around the Clock for finding the paper.


Rosie Redfield said...

I think that's a terrible idea. Everyone gripes about preparing grant proposals, but that's the one time we're forced to think rigorously about our research BEFORE we do it. If I didn't have to justify what I want to do in order to get the funding, I'd waste a lot of the taxpayers' money doing what I would only later realize to be useless experiments.

DK said...

To Rosie:

1. 40 > 30 ==> taxpayers money is already being wasted.

2. I find the contention that scientists only think hard about their research when writing proposals to be absolutely ridiculous. Sure, there are some but there is no chance that it is majority!

3. we're forced to think rigorously about our research Here, I fixed it for you: "we're forced to think rigorously about getting a grant".

Obviously, funding =/= quality of proposed research. By its very nature, peer review reinforces mediocrity. And, by definition, that ain't best science.

Back to the orignal post: Of course one can't just dole out equal $$$ to everyone. Cost of research matters, competency varies and scientific/national priorities matter. But surely a small group of qualified bureaucrats, armed with an empiric formula (say, an h-index corrected by field of research and weighted by priority factors) will do at least as well as the peer review system. Particularly because there is a performance feedback in case of bureaucrats (unlike in peer review system): they can be fired if they fund wrong programs (which will inevitably register as a drop in objective criteria of national performance).

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for posting. It's good to know that there are alternatives out there that might work. I can speak from personal experience that the lab I work in is currently scraping the bottom of the barrel and barely getting by because of several failed attempts at getting funding over the last few years. I am not directly involved in my adviser's grant writing process, but I have heard through him that one of the reasons given that we don't get our grants is because the reviewer's fail to see any useful application of what we are doing, not understanding that we are a technology and novel techniques driven lab.

Dick Gordon said...

Your readers may wish to read our article:

Gordon, R. & B.J. Poulin (2009). Cost of the NSERC science grant peer review system exceeds the cost of giving every qualified researcher a baseline grant. Accountability in Research: Policies and Quality Assurance 16(1), 1-28.

-Dick Gordon,

Bora Zivkovic said...

As this whole thing started with me (my brother sent me the paper), I would really like people to read the paper whole (I can send PDFs, also the author left the e-mail address for reprint requests on my post), then start a serious discussion using this comment as a starting point.

Bora Zivkovic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

NSERC is becoming a joke. Really all they care about is funding what they consider Exceptional or Outstanding researchers. What about giving everyone a $5K grant every year, and based on progress increment that in successive years. What about funding research that is applied in nature?
What about stopping the wastage of
public money on stupid research!

NicD said...

Rosie, as a researcher, I can't believe you'd oppose the idea of saving money by avoiding a useless bureaucratic process. Also, you would still have to prepare your proposal, because you would still have to apply for the grant.

The article is just pointing out that in 2007, the cost of setting up the peer review system was greater than what it would have cost to just give the money to all those who had applied (Provided they had some actual credentials).

However, I believe some sort of compromise would have to be sought out, because if NSERC promised 100% application acceptance, my guess is that alot more people would apply.

Anonymous said...


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Warm Regards

Project Grant Team