Last month the 2015 NSERC Discovery Grant results were released. If you don’t know, NSERC is the Canadian equivalent of NSF in the US or NERC in the UK–the main national government agency funding basic research in ecology, evolution, and other non-biomedical fields. But the similarities end there, because NSERC has a unique funding strategy. The purpose of Discovery Grants is to support excellent research programs, not individual projects. NSERC also prefers to support many strong research programs rather than trying to identify and fund only the very few best ones. That’s a policy for which there are good “bet hedging” arguments, given the unpredictability of advances in basic research. See here for more on this.*
What does this mean in practice? Here’s some data from the linked report. Read on if you’re a Canadian and so have a personal interest in these numbers, or if you’re a non-Canadian and are curious how the other half lives. You non-Canadians may want to sit down so you don’t faint from shock after reading the first bullet. 🙂
- Success rate for established researchers (those renewing an existing grant) was 82%. For “early career researchers” (basically, junior PIs who’ve never held a Discovery Grant) it was 65%. For “established researchers not holding a grant” (mostly PIs who’ve previously held a Discovery Grant but don’t currently do so because their most recent application(s) was/were declined), it was 38%.
- Average award size was $32,132/year ($35K for those renewing an existing grant; $26-27K for others). If that seems small to you, well, that’s the price of funding many research programs. Aside: the vast majority of these were 5 year awards; that’s the standard and maximum length.
- The distribution of award sizes was highly concentrated–the majority of the awards were for about $25K-35K/year. Only a very few “high fliers” got more than $60K/year, and nobody got more than $130K/year. Hardly anybody except for mathematicians (whose award sizes run very low compared to other fields) got less than 20K/year.**
- A slight majority of successfully-renewing PIs got an increase in nominal terms. The modal change for successfully-renewing PIs was small (±10% or less), but changes anywhere in the range of ±30% or so weren’t all that rare.
- The numbers for the Evolution and Ecology panel were broadly similar to the overall numbers: success rates of 90%, 50%, and 45% for renewers, early career folks, and non-renewing experienced folks, respectively. Average award size of $35.7K for renewers and about $25.5K for others.
- Male and female applicants at the same career stage had essentially identical success rates and average award sizes.
- All of the above is quite similar to last year. Click through to the report if you want some data on longer-term trends (since 2009).
On a personal note, I was up for renewal this year. Like most people, I put my grants on my cv, so I’m not revealing any secrets when I say that I got renewed for 5 years, for $26K/year. I have slightly mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, I got renewed, which is great! And I’m fortunate to be in Canada, where people doing good work can be confident in getting renewed. These data help me keep my mixed feelings in perspective. Given that I’m in Canada and I got renewed, any grant-related regrets I might have are definitely “First World problems”.
On the other hand, I’m a little disappointed to have gotten cut a bit relative to my previous award ($29K). And I dropped a bit relative to the E&E average, compared to where I was 5 years ago. But really, you can’t read much into that. My award places me within the range where most Canadian researchers fall, which is where I belong. Given the inevitable stochasticity associated with even a very thorough and fair evaluation process like NSERC’s, it would be silly to get upset about getting 26K rather than the 35K I was hoping for.
More substantively, all three external reviewers wanted more detail about the specific projects I proposed. Which has me kicking myself, because lack of detail about specific projects was the main issue I was worried about when I submitted. I had reasons for proposing numerous specific projects, and for feeling like the resulting lack of methodological detail wouldn’t be too much of an issue. But it turned out to be more of an issue than I’d hoped. The reviewers’ comments were very fair, and I take them seriously. So next time around I’ll probably try erring on the side of fewer projects developed in more detail. I’ll perhaps also try focusing more on my core lines of research. There’s no rule (or even unwritten expectation) that says that everything my lab is planning has to be in my NSERC Discovery Grant proposal. And then maybe I’ll just end up kicking myself for something else, but that’s the way it goes. All you can do is develop and explain your ideas as best you can, and then take the feedback seriously and try to do better next time. Performance, feedback, revision–if it’s good enough for evolution, it’s good enough for me.*** 🙂
p.s. I highlighted my blogging in my application, as a scholarly contribution. As I expected, it doesn’t appear to have made any appreciable difference one way or the other to the evaluation of my application. Only one of the three external reviewers mentioned it, and only in passing. Anecdotal, of course, but it’s consistent with my view that the rewards and costs of blogging are mostly intangible. Note that you can’t necessarily follow my example here. Depending on what sort of blogging you do, and your funding agency’s rules, you might have to list blogging in a different part of your application, or not list it at all.
*There are also other differences between NSERC’s policies and those of similar agencies in other countries, some of which reflect the structure of Canadian academia more broadly. For instance, there’s no overhead in NSERC Discovery grants (overhead is handled separately), no summer salary for PIs (Canadian academic appointments are all 12 month appointments), and Canadian grad students are mostly supported by TAships or scholarships during the fall and winter. So no, funding agencies in other countries probably could not adopt NSERC’s policies whole hog. But agencies in other countries could consider elements of the NSERC Discovery Grant model, for instance by reducing average award sizes so as to hopefully increase success rates. Note that Canada does quite well compared to other countries, including the US, on measures of research productivity per-dollar and per-investigator, so the NSERC model isn’t some egalitarian thing designed to make individual scientists happy at a cost to their collective productivity. The Discovery Grant model works, though of course so do other funding models.
**Note that the distribution of award sizes has almost nothing to do with PIs’ proposed budgets or with the cost of research (there is a cost of research component to award sizes, but it only affects a small fraction of awards). Applications are scored on a 6-point scale in each of three equally-weighted categories (quality of your research over the past 6 years, quality of your proposal, and training of students/postdocs/technicians/etc.). Within each of the 12 evaluation groups (i.e. research fields, of which “Evolution and Ecology” is one), everybody with the same total score gets the same amount of money. You’re not under any obligation to do anything you proposed to do. The assumption is that PIs will be able to spend whatever money they get and spend it well, no matter how much they asked for.
***I of course do get feedback from colleagues on draft proposals before submitting. That’s not just for newbies, everyone I know does this.