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Open Letter to Ms Isabelle Blain
about the NSERC 2011 DG results
in Mathematics and Statistics




 
Dear Ms. Blain:

I am encouraged by the letter that my colleague Prof Greg Martin
wrote. I write to you in strong support of his letter and to let you
know what the NSERC letters told me. I believe that many researchers
across the country read similar things when they received their
Discovery Grant results. I feel that it is important for you to hear
another personal account of the impact that these results have for the
research community in Canada.

The first letter that I received from NSERC last month contained the
message:
WHATEVER YOU DID IN THE PAST 5 YEARS AND WERE PLANNING TO DO
IN THE NEXT 5 YEARS IS CONSIDERED FAR BELOW AVERAGE BY NSERC.

This was my first renewal, I had worked hard over these past 5 years,
built a nice group of graduate and undergraduate students and even a
postdoctoral fellow (financially only possible through a provincial
award). My expectation was to find myself in the VVS bin and,
according to last year’s results, to get a grant of average size of
almost 20K. The result said 13K. Maybe I should have been happy,
because it was a 1K-increase compared to my first grant?

Then came the slightly longer letter that complemented the first: …
AND WE ARE NOT GOING TO TELL YOU WHY YOU ARE IN THIS BIN NOR WHAT YOU
COULD DO TO IMPROVE YOUR SITUATION THE NEXT TIME AROUND.

Indeed, I did get into the bin that I had expected! I also received
two short external reports (Why did a colleague of mine get five ?),
but no indication as to how the Evaluation Group arrived at their
result. For example, since one of the reviewers found one aspect of my
proposal too ambitious and claimed that s/he did not understand
another, what did the Evaluation Group think?  I once served on an NSF
grand selection committee; there, formulating a detailed and helpful
response to every applicant was a large part of the work. (This is not
to say that I prefer the NSF style model, but in this respect NSERC
could learn from NSF.)
For example, how are my 9 undergraduate students counted in HQP versus
the three graduate students, only one of whom had completed his degree
by the time of submission? This information could be important when
deciding on whether to accept undergraduate or graduate students in
the future. Never mind, as Prof. Martin already pointed out:
SHUT DOWN ALL TRAINING OF HIGHLY QUALIFIED PERSONNEL IMMEDIATELY.

Then came your letter that talked about very difficult circumstances
and the fairest possible decision. This letter said:
UNLESS YOU ARE ALREADY A SUPERSTAR, NSERC IS NOT INTERESTED IN YOU.
How else can I interpret that the top bins were not or only marginally reduced
compared to last year when some intermediate bins were cut by almost
or more than 50%? How else can I interpret the fact that the “E”
applications were even protected from reduction? And while NSERC
states that with the not-so-new binning system the grant allocation
process is memory-less, we all know that this is not true since the
funding level one time determines the potential for HQP the next time
to a large extent. There is not much that I can find “fair” in these
points. But you did not claim in your letter that is was fair, you
only claimed “the fairest possible”.

You know very well how few students a grant of 13K can support. It is
obvious that improving the score for HQP in the next round is a very
difficult task. This process of massively reducing the funding level
in all intermediate bins then only needs to be continued for a few
years to create a three-tiered system: the very few on the top with
lots of research funding, the many who have to get by with little, and
the increasing number of those who fall beneath the lowest funding
bin. Simply because when one starts with few chances to supervise
students, one can never catch up. As far as I know, this trend goes
completely against the recommendations of the international review of
the Discovery Grant program that was conducted a number of years ago,
and whose suggestions are supposedly implemented in the new Discovery
Grant evaluation process. It also goes completely against evidence
that “bang-for-the-buck” is a sublinear relationship: higher grants
produce fewer publications per research dollar.
My guess is that the same relationship holds true for HQP numbers.

As far as I am concerned: NSERC has lost the trust of the mathematical
research community and the Evaluation Group. Everybody on the
Evaluation Group knew the bin-to-$$ relationship from last year, at
least approximately. They intended for me and so many other applicants
to have adequate funding for the next five years of research and
training. They must be devastated by the results, too. New trust has
to be established between NSERC and the mathematical community. First:
I urge you to do your utmost to obtain additional funding to bring
this year’s levels per bin in line with the previous years. Second: It
must be clear that this situation was truly exceptional and will not
happen again next year. How are you going to obtain this?

Sincerely,

Frithjof Lutscher
“Successful” NSERC DG applicant
Department of Mathematics and Statistics
University of Ottawa







Department of Mathematics and Statistics