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.