11/21/2011 12:20 EST | Updated 01/20/2012 05:12 EST

Understanding Research Funding and Folly in Canada

Over time, hiring, promotion and tenure committees have favoured grant writers and grantsmanship over other perhaps more creative and innovative scholars who don't toe the line. There are serious consequences when, as in the current system, you invest in projects and not people.


This is the first in a three-part series co-authored by Johannes Wheeldon, PhD and Richard Gordon, PhD. The authors of the series have explored this issue from different angles elsewhere: Richard has demonstrated how the cost of rejecting a research grant now exceeds the cost of giving one for qualified Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council Canada (NSERC) applicants; Johannes is currently involved in a case in the Federal Court of Canada, that will finally define what sort of feedback is required to failed doctoral and postdoctoral applicants.

The role of research funding to an academic's career has never been more important, and yet there is an emerging consensus that the way we organize our system of research grants is broken. While concerns about Canada's model of research funding are longstanding, in recent years they have become increasingly stark. These include perpetual underfunding, charges of bias, and an over-reliance on the peer review system, which favours orthodoxy over innovation. Some believe that this has dumbed downed the professoriate and decreased the quality of expertise in Canadian society. Over time, hiring, promotion and tenure committees have favoured grant writers and grantsmanship over other perhaps more creative and innovative scholars who don't toe the line. There are serious consequences when, as in the current system, you invest in projects and not people.

There are at least three related issues.

First, fewer and fewer academics are getting funded to engage in the research upon which social and technological innovation is based. A variety of other approaches to grant funding could support more researchers and increase research impacts. Case studies suggest that freedom to pursue one's ideas leads to the greatest innovations. Under the existing system, however, the rewards are few, meted out based on what might be called the perversions of peer review justice in which "research funds are literally monopolized by the few who see themselves as the truly excellent researchers according to their own skewed yardsticks."

The second issue is time. Despite the long odds, it is difficult to be an academic researcher without support of one kind or another. This makes the time it takes to plan 'appropriate' projects and prepare grant applications a pressing priority. Living in untenured grant funding limbo is hard on families and rolling the funding dice reduces one's focus on updating course materials, teaching undergraduates, and mentoring graduate students. While the importance of balancing the multiple duties implied by an academic career should not be used as an excuse, it does appear that Canada's grant system is squeezing both professors and students. Instead of engaging in the real research activities that form part of every researcher's unique resume, researchers in Canada are expending time and effort for few awards and even less research support. In short, scientists are spending "too much time securing grants and too little time actually doing science."

Third, the motivation problems that result when one combines the enormous time it takes to apply for grants with the low chance of success cannot be ignored. Grants are seen as a huge part of an academic's career. As anyone seeking an academic job knows, securing a position in academia has become infinitely more complicated and now requires getting grants. The elimination of mandatory retirement in many provinces has resulted in senior professors staying on in their posts, further straining higher education budgets and reducing the opportunities for young would-be faculty. As the Economistnoted in 2007, Canadian universities conferred 4,800 doctorate degrees, but hired just 2,616 new full-time professors.

In practice, this sort of competition is dispiriting to younger academics who may realize they would do better to turn to the private sector than put to themselves in the service of a university system that offers few jobs for them. Paul Sanborn of the University of Northern British Columbia worries about NSERC policies that undermine the morale of current and potential graduate students. He suggests:

"They're astute and observant enough to see what their professors' lives are like. Despite our best efforts to shield them from some of this, I'm sure they're wondering if they have a future in research in this country. And I'm really not sure any more what to tell them."

Graduate students who choose careers in academia must contend with grant bodies who fail to clearly communicate criteria, eschew basic transparency, and uphold granting models that have been criticized for nearly three decades. Instead of operating in the open, decisions are made behind closed doors through secretive informal processes. A specific challenge for SSHRC Postdoctoral applicants is that applicants are provided no substantial feedback when their applications fail and they are at a loss as to what to do next.

The biggest issue, beyond the question of the integrity of the broader science community, is the resultant innovation inefficiencies. By wasting the time and effort of Canada's researchers (paid by taxpayers), and wasting money by operating unaccountable grant competitions, Canada's research funding model is a human resources failure. This harms researchers, students, and limits the diverse sorts of expertise a democratic society relies upon. Research benefits all Canadians, from improving health outcomes to strengthening defence and from testing social policies to better communicating and contextualizing our historical understanding of Canada in the world.

Taken together, these problems have led to a profound number of scholars to say the same thing: "the research system is sick."

In part two of the series, we will examine how the current system undermines innovation and harms the potential for research to benefit Canadian society, reduces international competitiveness, and undermines broadened thinking and imagination.