Skip navigation
The Black Hole

Come on NSERC, really – you’ve completely missed the point…


I always knew that bad news was released on Fridays in the summer… but last Friday was pretty ridiculous.  NSERC has just announced that in order to improve its success rate (just clocked at 7.8% in the most recent competition) it will now reduce the number of times an individual can apply for a postdoctoral award from two to one.

…  now that your jaw is back in place,  let’s look at what really matters.  The absolute number of fellowships awarded by NSERC represents how many scholars it supports each year through its program, and no matter how many people are applying, this is the most important number.

Sadly, the last five years have seen NSERC’s funded fellowships drop dramatically (awards / applicants):

  • 250 / 1169 (2008)
  • 254 / 1220 (2009)
  • 286 / 1341 (2010)
  • 133 / 1431 (2011)
  • 98 / 1254 (2012)

This is unbelievable and it cannot be sugar coated with a letter about streamlining or complaints about increased applicants (just a 7% increase in applicants from 2008 to 2012).

The sad facts are that NSERC is awarding 66% fewer fellowships.  As you can imagine, this has had an effect on success rates, but NSERC’s solution is to try and reduce the number of applicants in an effort to bring up the rate so that they can rid themselves of their sub-10% success rates.

I can’t even begin to explain everything that has run through my mind while writing this post other than repeating that NSERC has completely missed the point.

If you would like your comments to be raised at the next CAPS executive meeting, I strongly encourage you to write them below.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Erika / August 14, 2012 at 20:39

    This is infuriating. And I’m one of the lucky 9% from 2011. You hit the nail on the head Dave: Reducing the number of applicants does not increase the number of people being awarded fellowships.

    Furthermore, if you give people a single opportunity to apply for an NSERC PDF, they are going to wait until they have as many pubs as possible. So instead of applying during the final year of their PhD, people will have to wait until a few years after their PhD has been completed in order to accumulate more pubs so they have an increased likelihood of succeeding. Which just a) increases the age of the applicant and the total number of years of training required to march down the academic road and b) increases the requirement to receive a fellowship (e.g. it was estimated that you needed 8 pubs in 2011 – soon it will be 12 or more!).

    And just to make matters worse, $40,000 is a pathetic salary for a highly trained postdoc. I’m currently using my NSERC PDF in Australia and I make less than minimum wage. The other postdocs here make $70,000-$80,000. So young Canadian scientists are fighting tooth and nail to live in poverty.

    Why would I want to pursue a career in academia in Canada when science is so poorly funded?

  2. Casteels / August 15, 2012 at 10:14

    NSERC’s reason for the drop this year (and partially the year before) is that money had to be moved to fund this year’s crop of new CREATE programs. The scary part is that there are still two more years of new CREATE programs that will need money from somewhere! Which I guess implies that unless the scholarships and fellowships budget is greatly increased there may only be about 30 PDFs in a few years!

  3. Richard Gordon / August 15, 2012 at 11:59

    It might be relevant to read:
    Gordon, R. & B.J. Poulin (2009). Cost of the NSERC science grant peer review system exceeds the cost of giving every qualified researcher a baseline grant. Accountability in Research: Policies and Quality Assurance 16(1), 1-28.
    and ask where all that money is going. Contact me for copies. [email protected]

  4. James Colliander / August 19, 2012 at 00:11

    Thank you for writing this article and alerting others to this policy change. I wrote about the issue as well in a blog post.
    It would be interesting to hear from recent NSERC postdocs who were successful in their second application. Stories from people in that scenario would be a useful contribution to the discussion following this policy change.

    There is a developing social media space devoted to discussions around NSERC data. I encourage you and others interested in Canada’s research policy to join, share opinions, and share data.

    • Christopher Batty / August 22, 2012 at 12:55

      I applied for an NSERC PDF in 2010, and my application was rejected. I applied again in 2011, and was successful in both the NSERC and Banting PDF competitions (obviously accepting the latter). But if this new rule had been in place at the time, I would have been completely out of luck.