New granting process enhances measurement of excellence
McGill University has received $4.5 million in Discovery Grants awarded by the Natural Sciences and Research Council (NSERC) to support 118 research projects across a wide range of disciplines. The total for McGill compares with $4.358 million the University received last year.
The Discovery Grants Program, which is NSERC’s largest program in support of Canadian researchers, provides broad-based support for continuing programs of research across many areas of scientific inquiry. A peer-review process determines which of these long-term projects, deemed internationally competitive, will be successful. Most grants are for a five-year period. This year, the program will support more than 2,000 research projects across the country.
“We are pleased to see continued, indeed increased, support for a broad array of research,” said Denis Thérien, Vice-Principal of Research and International Relations.
Thérien acknowledged that this year’s granting process has been more controversial than in the past, as the Discovery Grants program undergoes some fundamental changes in the way successful research projects are chosen.
The changes, which McGill views as an important strengthening of the peer-review process through which proposals are evaluated, have meant some researchers find themselves with less support for their research, while others will receive more.
“We support the changes because they go unambiguously in a direction that reinforces excellence and competitiveness,” Thérien said.
In 2006, the federal government called for a thorough and independent review of the program’s granting procedures. Last year, that review recommended changes and NSERC is introducing a new two-step process for reviewing grant applications and adopting more transparent measurements for evaluating excellence. This will result in a more dynamic funding system, with more opportunity for researchers with superior accomplishments and contributions to receive substantial increases in support.
McGill believes these improvements “will establish a process that is as comprehensive and transparent as possible,” Thérien said. ”The changes NSERC is making will raise significantly the size of the average grant. This is a welcome step.”
The changes being made in the granting process mean there will be less reliance on the size of a researcher’s previous grant in determining new levels of support. This will clear the way for “rising stars” to have a better opportunity to share in research support and will not penalize those researchers whose initial grant might have been smaller because of constrained finances in the year their initial grant was made.
In addition, the Grant Selection Committee structure is being revamped, reducing the number of committees from the previous 28 to less than half that. These broader-based groups will be able to better evaluate cross-disciplinary research. They will also ensure a greater level of international peer review in the process.
As a result of the new evaluation process, a number of researchers, including some at McGill, have suddenly found themselves without their previous level of research support under the Discovery Grants program.
“We understand the frustrations and unhappiness of some of our colleagues,” Thérien said. “But it is important to note that there has been no reduction in global funding for the program. There has been a reallocation of support to projects that meet the new, improved standards for selection.”