The CERC program currently hosts 19 chairs across Canada, bringing “big-name talent” with a $10 million research grant for 7 years. Researchers have argued that the CERC program is bad for science (and scientific output) when compared with an alternate approach of increasing everyone’s NSERC Discovery Grant, and is part of a broader trend in funding fewer people at (much) higher amounts. It’s also part of a trend toward creating new, prestigious positions, while decreasing funding of ongoing research by existing researchers (similar to the Canada Research Chairs program).
A post at Watershed Moments (and another at Piece of Mind) about the CERC program and its various shortcomings reminded me of an article in the National Post last fall by Margaret Munro. She wrote about Patrik Rorsman, who was appointed to a CERC position at the University of Alberta, but left after 7 months saying:
It is quite a nice place, they have ambitions for their city and the university is also ambitious, but they suffer from the climate.
Some comments made by CAUT President Jim Turk in Munro’s piece caught my eye:
The money “going down the drain” with Rorsman’s chair could have helped save PEARL, the Canadian Arctic research station used by dozens of scientists to study the atmosphere and changing climate, says Turk. The lab stopped year-round operation when its federal money dried up earlier this year.
And, he says, the government has cut funding for the Experimental Lakes Area, a unique and internationally acclaimed aquatic research station in northwest Ontario, to save $2 million a year. The facility could be kept alive for five years with the money going to just one of the $10-million chairholders, says Turk.
PEARL is the Polar Environmental Atmospheric Research Laboratory, which was closed last year when it could no longer come up with the $1.5 million annual budget.
In the interests of maximizing scientific bang for the taxpayers’ buck, I decided to make a quantitative comparison of PEARL and Dr. Rorsman’s research record from 2005 (when PEARL was opened) to the present.
To do this, I used Scopus to look up Dr. Rorsman’s papers, and calculate his h-index. This is a number that tells us n papers have been cited n times. My h-index, according to Scopus, is 7. That means at least 7 of my papers have been cited at least 7 times. Yes, there are all sorts of problems with using this as a metric of “research impact”, but it will have to do for now.
At first glance, it appears Rorsman wins hands-down. But, as was pointed out almost immediately after the h-index was conceived in 2005, not all fields are created equal. So to compare across fields, we need to adjust h-indices to a common baseline. Following Iglesias and Pecharromán, let’s adjust these values based on the power law equation. PEARL falls in the “Environment/Ecology” category, and Rorsman in the “Molecular Biology/Genetics” field based on his recent work.
The f for Environment/Ecology is 0.88, while that for Molecular Biology/Genetics is 0.44. Applying these, we get:
PEARL: 16 * 0.88 = 14.08
Rorsman: 31 * 0.44 = 13.64
So the relative impact from the two groups (PEARL, Rorsman) is virtually identical from 2005-2013.
Now, I’m not going to make predictions about how prolific (and how well-cited) either of them would be over the 7 years of the chairship. But one thing’s for sure: the U of A spent over $1 million on a researcher who left after 7 months with no output. That’s about the same cost of running PEARL for the same period of time ($1.5 million). Needless to say, the case is even stronger when considering the scientific impact of the Experimental Lakes Area (h-index of 113, adjusted h-index of 99.44), which cost only $2 million/year.
The Broader Picture
As I noted above, there’s an increasing trend towards funding fewer researchers, but giving successful applicants LOTS of money. This has been editorialized in Nature, and observed in brain research, and seems to be increasing in Canada, as the success rate and amount of funding through NSERC’s Discovery Grant program has declined (ditto for SSHRC).
So, with Sarah from Watershed Moments, we set out to tally the funding put into the CERC program by government and universities. We included ancillary staff and faculty (the costs of which would be borne fully by the universities when the CERC funding runs out after 7 years), students and postdocs, in-kind expenses (like a university renovating a building/wing), and start-up. Our assumptions:
- Each CERC chair receives at least $1M in-kind and $1M in start-up, unless otherwise stated.
- M.Sc., and Ph.D. students are for 2 and 4 years, respectively, and are paid at NSERC rates ($17,500 and $21,000)
- Postdoctoral Fellows are for 2 years, and are paid at NSERC rates ($40,000)
- Faculty and staff salaries were taken from the university’s most recent collective agreement, and represent a “middle-of-the-road” step on the appropriate salary scale
- Some of these costs are likely part of the contributed funds from CERC or the university, but we had no basis to allocate these proportionally, so they are considered as separate expenses. Some students, staff, and postdocs, for example, are likely funded by CERC money, but there are no doubt others on other fellowships or paid by other grants.
Now for some disclaimers:
- Not every CERC had available financial information; for example, the CERC at Dalhousie University.
- Financial information was incomplete for some chairs (e.g., the University of Waterloo’s contribution to its two CERCs )
- It was next to impossible to determine how many graduate students and/or research staff some chairholders had.
On the whole, this is a back-of-the-envelope calculation and we’re not claiming accuracy to the penny (or nickel, I suppose). It also doesn’t include the second round of CERC appointments, which is currently underway.
Here’s the overall breakdown:
|Ancillary Faculty (59 for 7 years)||
|Ancillary Staff (87 for 7 years)||
|Postdocs (67 for 2 years)||
|PhD students (68 for 4 years)||
|MSc students (71 for 2 years)||
|In-kind & Startup||
Even if our total is only half right, that’s still over $300 million spent on just 18 researchers for 7 years (well, 17.147 if we prorate Dr. Rorsman’s tenure at the University of Alberta). More likely, if we include only the CERC, university, and in-kind/start-up funds (i.e., we assume that ALL salaries are paid from these sources), we get $573,330,000.
As it becomes harder and harder to find an academic job, and then fund research, we need to consider whether this system of large grants to fewer researchers makes sense. The problem isn’t endemic to Canada, but we can see where we’re headed by looking at what’s happening in the US.
It’s been pointed out (and defended against rebuttal) that it would be cheaper to give all applicants a baseline NSERC Discovery Grant of $30,000 than to invest the $40,000, on average, to review and reject applications from qualified researchers. If even 25% of the CERC money (about $165M, assuming the rest went to CIHR and SSHRC) were spread out over the ~3500 NSERC applicants on top of the average $30,000 Discovery Grant amount (2007), that would mean an extra $47,000 per applicant, or an average NSERC Discovery Grant of just over $77,000. I could do a lot with a guaranteed $77,000/year grant.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to do unfettered basic research in Canada, according to outgoing University of Toronto president David Naylor. And it’s clear that other aspects of our current research funding framework need some TLC. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time soon.
We have nothing against Dr. Rorsman, the other CERC chairs, their students, postdocs, or staff, nor do we begrudge them for accepting CERC-funded positions. Our issue is that the program exists at all.
- http://mech.mcmaster.ca/docs/News/Faculty/Emadi_2012%20Dec%206_Spec__Mac%20charges%20into%20battery%20research.pdf Where they say he has a $150mill budget for next 7-10y