NSERC’s honing of Discovery Grants Program reflects increasing diversity of research community

Mark Henderson
September 18, 2017

Response to Naylor report recommendations eagerly awaited

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) has announced $515 million in awards through its latest Discovery Grants Program (DGP) competition as the research community awaits the federal government’s response to recommendations of the David Naylor-led panel on fundamental research and the appointment of a chief science advisor which is expected in the coming weeks.

That compares favourably to 2016 when the total amounted to $465 million. Between 2010 and 2017, the DG portion rose 15% from $307 million to $353 million, essentially covering the rate of inflation during that seven-year period. The awards also include $162 million in the areas of scholarships, fellowships, research supplements and equipment grants.

“I’m very pleased … The applicant pool has increased (and) we have stability in the system although the average grant size is still woefully inadequate,” says NSERC president Dr Mario Pinto, adding that the agency’s current strategic roadmap and its five themes provide effective indicators for DGP performance. “The Discovery Grants Program responds to the needs of a diverse community. We don’t steer it, researchers do.”

Whether the DGP will receive a boost in the form of new federal funding hinges upon the government’s eagerly awaited response to the Naylor panel report, which recommended a $1.3-billion increase in the budgets of the three granting councils, the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and related entities over the next four years.

“We’ll have to be a little more patient,” says Pinto. “We’re grateful they cited the funding shortage. (New funding) is critical for international recruitment and performance. Talent is the great differentiator in the fourth industrial revolution … We’re at an unusual point in world history and there’s an unprecedented opportunity.”

Since his appointment nearly three years ago, Pinto steered NSERC through the final year of the Harper administration and its preference for targeted granting agency funding and into the Trudeau era in which evidence-based decision making and support for fundamental research have become a clarion call for a reinvigoration of Canada’s research base.

Pinto says the NSERC’s funding ratio of fundamental versus targeted has remained 70-30 throughout his term and that the 2016 Budget’s allocation to NSERC of $30 million in new, unfettered funding was directly applied to DGP recipient awards. He is cautious about predicting any future increases once the government responds to the Naylor report but states that NSERC is “certainly ready to use best practices to accommodate any increase”.

Between 2013 and 2017, the DGP has seen the success rate for early career researchers (ECRs) increase from 60% to 69% despite an increase in the number of applicants from 471 to 562. Awards to established researchers (ERs) increased from 59% to 66%, with the number of applicants for those seeking renewed funding and researchers not holding grants falling from 1825 and 1102 respectively to 1636 and 1042.

“Their (ECR) success rate has always been equal to or greater than established researchers,” says Pinto, adding that NSERC’s situation with ECRs is “much different from CIHR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research)”. “The amounts for ECRs start at a lower rate (but) we allow movement. The system allows it.”

Pinto credits the ability of the NSERC peer review system to accommodate shifting trends and needs to the Conference Model and binning process used to adjudicate applicants. Now in its eighth year of use, initial suspicion of the Conference Model — particularly by the mathematics research community — has given way to widespread acceptance. “We’re very pleased and very impressed,” says Pinto. “It’s an exercise in choreography. Inter-disciplinary and emerging areas are also covered which is very important.”

For the latest DGP competition, 448 members adjudicated the competition, augmented by 8,278 external reviewers from Canada and around the world who contributed their expertise pro bono.

“It speaks to the respect that the Discovery Grants system holds for everyone,” says Pinto.

Pinto says NSERC has also made great strides accommodating the unique needs of smaller universities and ECRs requiring parental or medical leave but acknowledges that “we can do more” in the area of diversity and those forging non-linear career paths.

Of the 3240 applicants in the 2017 DGP competition, 2027 were male, 551 were female and 662 did not identify (not indicated). Success rates among gender are roughly equal, with 66% female and 67% male.  Average award sizes were also roughly on par, with female ECRs receiving $25,962 compared to $25,261 for males, while female ERs received $34,330 compared to $35,992 for males.

Pinto says further work towards achieving gender equilibrium are ongoing including the use of trainers to work with evaluators to recognize conscious and unconscious bias in the evaluation system.

When asked whether there were any significant discipline-specific shifts in the DGP competition,Pinto says Computer Science has shown a steady increase in the number of awards over the last few years while awards under the Genes, Cells and Molecules category jumped 55% between 2010 and 2017, with slightly greater success rates for female applicants (62.5% vs. 58.6%)

Pinto says the increase in life science-related awards typically associated with CIHR reflect NSERC’s support of the fundamentals of biomedical research as well as a trend among younger researchers attracted to research with social benefits.

“New faculty want to make a difference in life, especially female faculty,” he says. “Many awardees also hold CIHR grants”.


NSERC Awards Results

(in $000s)

Discovery Grants (individual) 353,301
Subatomic Physics projects and research tools 23,282
Discovery Accelerator Supplements 15,000
Discovery Development Grants 1,080
Scholarships and Fellowships 85,950
Research Tools and instruments 36,480
Total 515,193



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