The Smart Way to Fund Academic Research

01/12/2012 12:15 EST | Updated 03/12/2012 05:12 EDT

This is the final part of a three part series critically examining the academic research funding model in Canada. Part one outlined why the existing system wastes taxpayers' money and researchers' time. Part two discussed how the current system undermines innovation. This final part proposes some options for reform.

In the first two parts of this series, we tried to re-ignite a longstanding conversation in Canada about the need to use limited research dollars to support more Canadian researchers in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. The existing system harms researchers and students, who are the kind of diverse expertise required to benefit Canadian society and advance its industries. So what can be done to overcome the existing folly of research funding in Canada? There are at least three options.

The first is to maintain the existing system and attempt to improve it through a concerted effort to increase transparency, accountability, the communication of selection criteria, and through reforms to the flawed appeal process. In 2004, the Federal Court recognized the essential educative character of publicly funded research granting processes. The court suggested that applicants deserve feedback on failed applications for grant monies so that they can better compete in future competitions. While this might be an improvement, it may be the worst of all options because it retains what we have argued is a fundamentally flawed selection process.

It may nonetheless be a useful first step. In an upcoming case, the social scientist among us (Johannes Wheeldon) has requested a judicial review of the Social Sciences and Humanities and Research Council's appeals process (SSHRC). The application argues that SSHRC fails in its required duty to provide adequate reasons for decisions, and to release the sort of information upon which an appeal could be launched.

Unless applicants know how various elements are weighed and what the specific evaluation criteria are, they can't successfully appeal or strengthen future proposals. As it currently stands, SSHRC Doctoral and Post Doctoral competitions mock the requirement under law that reasons be given so applicants can understand how to improve their future applications.

The need for transparency is not limited to the social sciences. Andrew Park argues that with regard to the difficult position of small universities and the challenge of attracting Highly Qualified Personnel (HQP):

What we need from NSERC is a pronouncement -- written in plain English and not their usual fog of bureaucratic prevarication -- that clarifies just how applicants from small universities, and their HQP in particular, are going to be treated.

A second model would abandon the peer review system and invest directly in people not projects. By moving away from the false assumption that is possible to predict what research will or will not result in socially useful outcomes, this approach would focus on funding basic research based on the uniform distribution of research funds.

In some ways, this would be a return to past models in which basic research flourished and many more qualified researchers received baseline funding. While those with the best records of publication, partly tested ideas, and practical and socially useful contributions could seek additional funding through competitions, the question of who is qualified is left up to the much more thorough hiring, promotion, and tenure committees in universities.

These localized systems of peer review are already used to this type of in-depth reviewing of an academic's whole career. Unfortunately under the current system, universities have abrogated much of their responsibility to grant agency committees.

A third, hybrid approach, could maintain a role for peer review while focusing on finding people with good ideas and the nerve to pursue them. This might be based on a revision of Donald Forsdyke's proposed bi-cameral peer review process that builds on the old "invest in people not projects" literature of resurgent interest.

There are, of course, strengths and weaknesses with each of these options. Likely none can fix all the problems associated with a system that is ultimately designed to separate research winners from those who are seen as research losers.

If SSHRC, NSERC, and CIHR truly believed in doubt as the basis of science, they would themselves agree to fund and host a meeting on alternative grant funding systems. Such a conference would only be meaningful if the Tri-Councils agreed to a process in which the view of those it professes to serve would result in meaningful reform. While ever the optimists, our experience with those who run the granting agencies suggest this is unlikely.

What is needed instead is leadership from Canadian academics themselves, and scholars will need to be brave. No reform -- imposed from the top, or emerging from the bottom -- will be successful as long as academics in Canada continue to participate in the failed folly that is the existing research grant system.

This means confronting the fact that applying for funds, serving on committees, and acceding to the resultant outcomes indicates tacit consent with the resultant funding outcomes.

It appears many Canadian academic careers depend on bootlicking obsequiousness instead of speaking truth to power; such an approach will always place academics at a disadvantage. Do our Canadian colleagues truly believe the existing process serves the interests of researchers, students, taxpayers, and higher education in Canada?

In this series we have argued that by acquiescing to covert grant funding practices, the academic establishment harms autonomous research, learning, and innovation. It is high time for a new conversation that can only occur by students, professors, departments, faculties, and universities banding together.

It does appear that engaging in a process outside of the powerful university system can help spur Canada's research councils to acknowledge what nearly all researchers all ready know. An online petition, related to the need to reform Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), and still active, has led more than 2000 signatories and some internal soul searching at CIHR.

Perhaps it is time for natural scientists and social scientists to employ a similar approach to demonstrate just how many of them recognize the problems and are willing to sign on to an effort to reform the system. We seek to start a conversation among academics and researchers themselves and better understand to what extent these views are more broadly held.

We invite you and all others who have a stake in research and research funding to offer your comments and ideas on the funding system operated by SSHRC. We will do our very best to report your views fairly.

The SSHRC feedback form is here and the NSERC feedback form is here.

We will use the anonymous results of our efforts in an upcoming article designed to explore how the granting agencies can better distribute funds and engage in processes that observe the same rigor that is required of the academic scholarship it attempts to encourage. Until they do, our granting bodies fail the basic credibility test all serious scholarship relies upon.

If scholars believe the heart of research is sick, it is time for them to dig deep, confront their own legacies, and speak up whether they agree there are serious concerns over research funding, or not.