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CAUT/ACPPU Bulletin Online


Vol 58 | No 5 | May 2011

NSERC trips over its own rules

Back Print
According to Isabelle Blain, “After hearing from our community, NSERC gave instructions to the evaluation group executive committees this year to no longer consider the option to ‘split’ a bin,” (Letters, CAUT Bulletin, April 2011). With this statement NSERC tacitly admits it has failed to follow its own rules, dispelling the myth that NSERC’s new Discovery Grants program is fair.

NSERC’s third last-minute rule change in three years highlights a system that is broken and in complete disarray. In the latest NSERC follies, the practice of violating its own “policies” continues. The following may be of interest to some first renewal applicants and esta­blished researchers who are considering an appeal of denied Discovery Grant applications.

According to the 2010-2011 Peer Review Manual, “Executive Committees rely on principles appropriate to their own discipline community, e.g., giving first priority . . . , in some cases, to ‘first renewal’ applicants. First renewal applicants are those established researchers who have submitted their first application for a renewal in the year that their first Discovery Grant will end.” (p. 22)

This policy is new for the 2011 competition and effectively creates a new category of researchers, complete with its own definition. The priority for “first renewal” applicants is extended to all evaluation groups, as NSERC cannot create a new category for some groups but not others. It should also be noted that in order to grant “first priority,” the quality cut-offs for “first renewal” applicants must necessarily be the same as those for early career researchers. It is therefore surprising that none of the evaluation groups made any effort to give “first priority” to first renewal applicants in the 2011 competition. Apparently, NSERC cannot even abide by a policy that it has only just created.

According to Blain’s letter, “One of the EGs (Chemistry) recommended a higher quality cut-off and a reduced number of grants to protect the purchasing power for the most highly rated applicants.” This directly conflicts with two NSERC policies.

According to the Peer Review Manual, “Each Evaluation Group, through its Executive Committee . . . makes the final recommendation for budget distribution within the Evaluation Group, with guidance from NSERC staff.” (p. 22)

However, NSERC has explicitly limited the executive committees’ discretionary powers through the following Peer Review Manual language found at pages 21-22: “The 2009 competition year set the benchmark in terms of the grant amounts or funding level assigned to various bins for each discipline cluster.” This essentially sets the funding level assigned to each bin and the quality cut-off for each evaluation group.

And, “Budget permitting in a given competition year, the funding level assigned to each bin is expected to be in a similar range from year to year within an Evaluation Group.” In other words, executive committees can reduce the funding levels assigned to the bins if the budget allocation is insufficient to maintain the previous years’ funding levels.

Given that the executive committees of the 11 other evaluation groups elected not to raise the quality cut-offs, it is difficult to imagine that the 2.7 per cent drop in the average grant size (2009: $36,333 and 2010: $35,045 for established researchers) is not within a “similar range” from the previous year. In addition, it is clear that protecting “the purchasing power for the most highly rated applicants” is not an NSERC-approved reason for changing funding levels or raising the quality cut-off. Furthermore, policy indicates that executive committees do not have any authority (either explicit or implied) to change quality cut-offs as they were established and fixed in the 2009 competition.

“You know there is a serious problem, when the members of NSERC’s Evaluation Groups are the first to call foul, and announce they are shocked, surprised and offended by the results of the latest NSERC Discovery Grant competition — the one they just finished running,” writes mathematician Nassif Ghoussoub, in an April 12 entry on his Piece of Mind blog, http://

Ignorance is strength. Rules are inconvenient. Meritorious applicants are unfundable. George Orwell would be impressed.

John Murimboh
Acadia University