Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences

Promoting and advancing molecular understanding of biology

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CSMB Response to NSERC Request for Consultation

April 1, 2013

Ms Isabelle Blain
Vice-President
Research Grants and Scholarship
NSERC

Dear Ms Blain,

The Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences (CSMB), previously known as the Canadian Society of Biochemistry, Molecular and Cell Biology (CSBMCB), thanks you for the opportunity to participate in the evaluation of the Discovery Grants Program. Since 2011, the CSMB includes the members of the former Genetics society of Canada and therefore represents scientists with a wide variety of disciplines in the biosciences.

The consultation questions were circulated to all of our members who were requested to forward their comments to the CSMB for preparation of a response from the Society. A number of responses were forwarded which assisted greatly in the preparation of this report.

Our report is structured as a series of responses to the consultation questions.

Role of the Discovery Grants Program

Q.1 ? What role does or should the Discovery Grants program play in funding NSE research, including basic or fundamental research, high-risk research and multidisciplinary research?

The NSERC Discovery Grants program and its predecessors the NSERC and earlier the NRC Operating Grant programs have played a crucial role in the development of excellent research programs at Canadian universities. As stated by one of our members “There are few, if any, other sources of stable funding for fundamental research, which supplies ideas and new discoveries that can eventually be incorporated into applied research”. Basic research is the engine behind applied research and it also provides the training for personnel who will later be involved in basic research. As another member states “As you are aware, the International Review Committee reported in 2007 that NSERC’s Discovery Grant program was a model for broad-based support of basic science, and specifically noted that there was no evidence to suggest that NSERC was funding anything other than excellent research.” Clearly NSERC should be proud of its central role in the development of an excellent basic research community. Certainly the NSERC Discovery Grants program should continue to play this crucial role in Canadian Science.

Nevertheless, a major concern expressed by members was their perception of the declining portion of the NSERC budget dedicated to basic research with more emphasis being placed on applied research.

Certainly applied research is important and we realize that there maybe political directives to increase the proportion of funding dedicated to it. However, basic research is of fundamental importance to the maintenance and advancement of the Canadian research community as well as for all the applications that will ultimately emerge. One member states “It is difficult to understand why the government needs to be continually reminded that lack of funding for fundamental and high-risk research in the present will cripple applied research in the future?” We hope that NSERC will continue to make this point to decision makers.

A related major concern is the decline in success rates and in the size of the average grant. The funds available do not allow for successful applicants to have research programs that reach their full potential. The low success rate of new applicants prevents them from developing research programs at the important initial stage of their university career. The failure of productive applicants to obtain renewals means a break in continuity of their research programs and possibly demise of them while applicants still have years of potential productivity ahead of them.

Finally, the decline in success rates reduces the diversity of research in Canada and concerns were especially expressed for smaller universities. To paraphrase a comment from a member an extra $30,000 to a large lab provides support for example for an additional postdoctoral fellow doing research closely related to others in the laboratory whereas that same funding given to a small laboratory supports an entire research program in a completely different area.

Q.2 ? Do you believe that the current focus and objective of the Discovery Accelerator Supplements are appropriate?

There was a difference of opinion of members responding to this question. Some supported the DAS but felt that they should not be targeted but rather available to the most outstanding applications. Others thought the DAS should be discontinued and the funds put into the Discovery Grants budget to increase success rates and/or average grant sizes. Considering that the new evaluation process allows for significant increases of funding given to excellent applications, it is not clear whether the DAS program is still as justified as it was when it was originally designed.

Program Design and Delivery

The performance and outcomes of the Discovery Grants program are measured against three program objectives:

  1. promote and maintain a diversified base of high-quality research capability in the natural sciences and engineering in Canadian universities;
  2. foster research excellence; and
  3. provide a stimulating environment for research training.

Applicants to the Discovery Grants program are assessed on the following three selection criteria, as judged by their peers:

  1. the excellence of the researcher(s) as demonstrated by the quality and impact of their recent research achievements;
  2. the merit of their research proposal; and
  3. their achievements in, and plans for, research training.

Currently, these three program selection criteria are equally weighted.

Q. 3 ? Do you believe that this is appropriate, based on the three program objectives, or should certain criteria be weighted higher or lower relative to the other criteria, and why?

Members responding agreed that all three program objectives should be assessed but differed in the proportions that they believe should be assigned to the criteria. Several suggested the HQP criteria should be weighted less than the other two criteria.

In 2009 and 2010, NSERC implemented a new peer review system, which involved the following changes:

  1. a two-stage review process that decouples the merit assessment of applications from the funding decision;
  2. a merit assessment that provides a rating for each of the three selection criteria based on a common set of Merit Indicators; and
  3. a new committee structure made up of 12 Evaluation Groups that function in a conference model.

Q. 4 ? Does the new peer-review system enable NSERC to ensure consistency and fairness in the assessment process, across applications?

Members expressed general satisfaction with the new peer-review system. As one member stated “Peer review is a human system and, as such, will never be perfect. But the one we use now is probably better than the alternatives.”

Q. 5 ? Does the new peer-review system enable meritorious applicants, regardless of their career stage, to increase their funding more quickly?

One member answered this question as follows. “YES with the exception of HQP. By virtue of their ‘newness’ in the system, ECR generally score moderate for HQP, with a few getting strong. It is recognized that new faculty in a first tenure-track position cannot possibly have the same HQP record as an ER, even with a stellar training plan. This is accounted for to some extent by funding to bin K for ECR. However, beyond that, anyone can get into a high funding bin if they have the past record and an excellent proposal.” I would concur with this but would add that the overall funding available for the Discovery Grants program does put a brake on the level of increased funding available for applicants at all career stages.

Arthur J. Hilliker
President, Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences


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