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In my opinion

Is research funding “skewed” to larger universities?


Every decade has its trend, and in the university sector “differentiation” seems to define the current one. It’s difficult to take issue with the basic idea: different institutions should focus on their different strengths. But, this notion has encouraged some implausible conclusions that warrant better scrutiny. One of them is the notion that research (and graduate studies) be privileged at larger universities.

The issues this conclusion raises are highlighted in a recent article by Dennis L. Murray et al. in PLOS ONE (and also in the June-July 2016 issue of University Affairs), which claims that the evaluation of NSERC applications is biased in favour of larger universities. Its statistical survey shows “that funding success and grant amounts… are consistently lower for applicants from small institutions. This pattern persists across applicant experience levels, is consistent among three criteria used to score grant proposals, and therefore is interpreted as representing system bias targeting applicants from small institutions.”

In one of his provocative commentaries, Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, has encouraged his readers to read Murray et al., but not for the reasons the authors themselves suggest. According to Mr. Usher, the more plausible explanation for the different NSERC success rates at small and large institutions is that, “just maybe, faculty research quality is not randomly distributed. Maybe big rich universities use their resources mainly to attract faculty deemed to have greater research potential. Maybe they don’t always guess quite right about who has that potential and who doesn’t, but on the whole it seems likelier than not that the system works more or less as advertised.”

The NHL view places large universities in the majors and smaller universities in the minors when it comes to research talent and ability

This is an important hypothesis, not because it is plausible, but because it exposes some deep prejudices about research at Canadian universities. I call this the “NHL view,” because it suggests that the university system operates in the way that the National Hockey League and other professional sports do: with major and minor leagues.

The NHL view places large universities in the majors and smaller universities (of the sort studied in the Murray paper) in the minors when it comes to research talent and ability. We can see how badly this misconstrues the way that research works in Canadian universities by considering how major and minor leagues work in hockey.

Minor hockey leagues are populated by players who are not ready to play in the NHL. They sign with a minor league team which is affiliated with a major league team, in the hopes that they can make it to the NHL. The salaries of players in the majors are many times those of minor leaguers. The latter have short and precarious careers which consist of short-term contracts.

Does this system of employment compare to research appointments at Canadian universities? Hardly. Research in Canadian universities is tied to tenure-track positions. They go to newly minted PhDs who are qualified to work at any university of any size – and not as short-term appointments, but as permanent positions that can continue for 30 or 40 years.

faculty go wherever they are able to secure a position

Tenure-track salaries at large universities are not enormously different from salaries at small universities (when one takes the cost of living in large cities into account, they are in some ways lower). As anyone who hires faculty knows, a position’s status as tenure-track or not is a far more significant component of a position than salary is.

Especially in the situation in which there are more qualified candidates than there are jobs, faculty go wherever they are able to secure a position (i.e. to where the jobs are when they graduate). In situations in which they have a choice, their decisions are influenced by many things: the desire to live in a particular location, proximity to their extended family, the fit between them and an academic department, the career opportunities for their spouse, cost of living and so on.

Not surprisingly, in view of this, research talent is widely distributed across the Canadian university system. Here and there, institutions – small as well as large – create unique positions for research stars, but such positions are a tiny component of the university system, and programs like the Canada Research Chairs ensure that they are spread across all kinds of universities.

If Canada is to get the most out of the funding it provides for research activities, this funding needs to follow talent. There is no good reason to believe that some select group of universities has some kind of systematic advantage in this regard. The NHL view of Canadian universities is misleading. Any biases it promotes need to be rectified if Canada is to make the most of research activity at its universities.

Leo Groarke is president of Trent University.

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  1. Amanda / November 11, 2016 at 12:00

    “They go to newly minted PhDs who are qualified to work at any university of any size” … not really. They go to the few, tenacious, “newly minted PhDs” who have been working, underpaid, as post-doctoral fellows and sessionals for nearly a decade.

  2. Chris Vincent / November 13, 2016 at 12:46

    Although the author’s faculty exchangeability argument before a hiring decision may have some merit, the university of employment after the start of employment is important. Simply put, faculty at a larger university have less classes to teach and much more time for research. Course rotations are smaller and more specialized. Additionally, a steady influx of post-graduate students ensures that research programs have viability, along with larger start-up packages. In fact, even before a decision has been made candidates will tend to emphasize either teaching or research which support the idea that there is some distinction.

    Nonetheless, the line is blurry, and one approach to remedy the situation would be to ensure “micro-grant” accessibility with a much smaller review process. Instead of having a major review process for even a much smaller grant which may be of substantial benefit to a faculty research program at a small university, a streamlined process could be proposed. There is a substantial difference between a 50k/ year grant and possibly a 5-6K/year grant, which under NSERCs current administration is not supported. Faculty who are active in research would then still have some support and less time would be spent on grant preparation and review.

  3. Alex Usher / November 18, 2016 at 04:53

    A brief reply here: I’d agree with Leo that research talent is spread widely in Canadian universities. But that doesn’t mean that it is *equally* spread, which is the implicit contention of the original PLOS One article. Since small average differences will likely up mattering quite a lot in very competitive processes it’s possible for there to be wide dispersion of talent and significant clumping of research money without bias being the explanation.

    I wonder about the degree to which granting councils around the world spread money around to non-“elite” universities, ie do the Australian/British/American counterparts of Trent/Regina/Lethbridge/etc. receive equivalent amounts of research funding? My impression is that they do not, and that Canada is better at this than others. But admittedly I don’t know the data well enough to be sure (and apples-to-apples comparisons here would be tricky). This would be a good research project for someone, though.

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