Posted by: Jeremy Fox | January 14, 2012

The scientific impact of a nation of beavers

Recent changes in the grant application procedures of the US National Science Foundation have prompted much discussion, and have renewed the debate over the best way for governments to fund scientific research. I have argued in favor of the Canadian NSERC system. Briefly, their approach, which is almost unique in the world, is to fund long-term research programs rather than individual projects, and fund them at a relatively low average level (though with high variance around that average) so as to maintain a high success rate (because it’s not “long term” funding if most people’s research programs get cut off every few years in favor of other people’s).

Anecdotally, this system seems attractive to a lot of non-Canadians. But some non-Canadians hate it. In particular, I have the anecdotal impression that some US researchers think the Canadian NSERC system was invented because we Canadians are too weak and/or lazy to compete properly. So we’ve invented a collectivist, everybody-gets-some-money-and-nobody’s-allowed-to-get-too-much system that funds lots of weak science, underfunds the best science, and breeds further laziness in Canadian scientists. Success rates at the US NSF may be low, they say or imply, but it’s only losers who complain–the very best projects get all the money, as they should. As a result, US research is way better than Canadian research, not just in aggregate (because the US is a much bigger country that spends much more on research), but person-for-person and dollar-for-dollar.

Ahem. See in particular Fig. 5. No, it doesn’t break out NSERC-funded research from other Canadian research. And yes, I know these data are old (but is there any reason to think the picture’s changed hugely in the last decade?) I’d welcome links to more recent and NSERC-specific data. But NSERC is not a trivial fraction of Canadian research spending, and NSERC researchers are not a trivial fraction of Canadian researchers. Indeed, see Fig. 3 in the linked publication for data showing that Canada’s areas of greatest research strength are areas which are NSERC-funded. If NSERC’s approach was so terrible, do you really think Canada would crush the US (and beat every other member of the G8 except for the UK) in publications per researcher, citations per researcher, and citations per unit GDP, and equal the US on citations per unit higher education R&D funding?

Canada’s national animal is the beaver, the choice of which tends to draw a lot of snarky comments from our southern neighbors, who made a different choice. But beavers are some of the best non-human engineers in the world, and on a per-capita basis they have far more impact on their environment than any bird of prey. I can’t think of a better symbol for a nation that punches well above its weight scientifically. The beaver is a noble animal.

You want to argue that there are constraints that prevent your country from switching to anything like the NSERC system? Fine (I don’t know that I believe you, but fine). You want to argue that there other funding systems, quite different from NSERC, that can also produce a lot of bang for the buck? Hey, I totally agree (the data in the linked paper put the UK at the top of the scientific productivity league table) But if you want to argue that the NSERC system can’t or doesn’t work? Sorry, you’d better back up your claims with data, rather than stereotypes, anecdotes, and baseless a priori assumptions. Because I wouldn’t have thought that any hyper-competitive US researcher would ever be so lazy as to rely on that kind of thing.*

*To my many US colleagues: the snark here isn’t aimed at you. The snark here is borne out of a frustrating series of exchanges I had with a US blogger, who has some thoughtful and interesting views on science funding, but who sees arguments in favor of the Canadian system as too stupid to respond to with anything other than silly jokes, and who retreats to the safety of her own blog crying “censorship” when others complain that her silly jokes are derailing a productive discussion. She’s apparently convinced that I’m just a humorless old guy who can’t take a joke or laugh at himself and who isn’t aware of all internet traditions regarding commenting. Or that I’m such a crappy writer that she can’t even tell what I’m talking about and so doesn’t feel able to respond to my comments with anything other than silly jokes. Please excuse the public vent. I feel better now.

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Responses

  1. Some people are best avoided or ignored. Unfortunately we have quite a few more than our fair share down here.

    • In retrospect, you’re absolutely right. It’s a post I probably should’ve slept on. But the substantive bits are, I think, useful to revisit given that funding policies are getting a lot of attention right now.

  2. Doesn’t some politician recently want to change the Canadian national animal?

    Otherwise, there is more recent data (e.g., from <a href="http://www.researchtrends.com/issue25-november-2011/is-science-in-your-country-declining-or-is-your-country-becoming-a-scientific-super-power-and-how-quickly/"<ResearchTrends.com) on similar things out there. IIRC, the US funding system doesn’t lead to better results with the passage of time.

    Unfortunately, some UK politicians have recently used the fact that UK scientists do extremely well with relatively less money spent on science than other developed nations, to basically argue that further cuts will be a good thing.

    • Thanks for the link to recent data Mike, will have to check that out.

      Yes, there was recently a bit of debate here about changing the national animal to the polar bear. Depending on your point of view, that would either be choosing the biggest, toughest, fiercest symbol anybody’s got (unless South Africa’s symbol is the great white shark or something), or the national-symbol-choosing equivalent of suicide (since the polar bear is famously threatened by global warming). Personally, I find the beaver both more appropriate to the Canadian personality, and a much more imaginative choice.

      Yes, the trouble with being efficient is that the people holding the purse strings tend to hear “efficient” as a synonym for “free”.

  3. Having been on the faculty in both the US & Canada, I totally agree with you Jeremy. The Canadian system has enormous advantages and I would pick it any day.

    For starters, 5 pages every 5 years (without the excessively detailed budgets and institutional routing) beats the pants of 2-3 15 page proposals/year (10-15 per 5 years) with 3 pages of budget justifications and 4 levels of routing.

    For seconds – everybody talk about how small the grants are in Canda, but this ignores the fundamentally different contract of research funding. First of all Candians tend to talk about yearly funding ($20-$40K being typical) instead of total grant ($60-$120K per typical 3 year period in US). Second there is no overhead. Third, there is no summer salary needed in Canada (most are on 12 month appointments). Fourth, Canda has substantial graduate and postdoc fellowships (and undergrad research experiences), funding students directly (which gives the students more power and is a better model). So that $20K-$40K/year only has to cover conferences and publishing and field expenses. Not going to build a NEON site, but most ecologists can live very happily on that. And there are separate fundings sources for large projects.

    Third – the funding is much more dependable – no worries about keeping a long term site going.

    Fourth – the US system which is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few researchers is ultimately paying a lot of money for graduate students to do supervisor directed research in megalabs (15 students). In Canada the funding goes more to the faculty doing research and supervising smaller labs of independently funded students – a better model all around as far as I’m concerned.

    By funding “research programs” instead of “research projects” I believe Canada is able to fund more creative research whereas NSF has an inherent bias towards incremental, safe research in my opinion.

    If I had a vote, I would vote for the US to switch to the Canadian system in a minute. It might be a little more socialist and fund a little more “deadwood” but it also removes enormous inefficiences of time and uncertainty, funds more innovative work, gives more power to graduate students, and funds more hands-on, faculty-involved research (as opposed to graduate student empires).

    • So when are you coming back to Canada, Brian? 😉

      Most of your points are ones I’ve made myself, and so I wholeheartedly agree. Your point about improving the student experience by funding funding smaller labs is one that hadn’t occurred to me but you may well be on to something there as well. I don’t know of any data on the distribution of lab sizes in Canada vs. the US, in ecology or any other field. Would be interesting to see such data.


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