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The Black Hole

Is NSERC turning the ship around?

I can happily report that something has indeed changed at NSERC and the number of postdoctoral fellowships being awarded is definitely recovering.


Nearly five years ago, I alerted readers to an alarming trend in postdoctoral fellow awards at the Canadian Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). In my blog entitled Come on NSERC, really – you’ve completely missed the point…, I was complaining that in order to improve on their abysmal <8 percent funding rate in their fellowship program, their solution of reducing applications was the wrong one.  Instead of a 66 percent decrease in the absolute number of funded fellowships, NSERC should be thinking about how to get more money into fellowships alongside trying to reduce peer review burden (which was the guise they were hiding under at the time).

Shortly after this article and to my immense pleasure, in 2013, NSERC published an evaluation of their Postdoctoral Funding model and came to three recommendations, one of which was to “Explore options to increase the financial support available to postdoctoral fellowships (PDFs).” I assumed this would fall on deaf ears, but five years on, I can happily report that something has indeed changed at NSERC and the numbers are definitely recovering.

Five years ago I’d initially reported on:

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

The five years following the evaluation report represent a complete bucking of the 2011/12 decline and (hopefully) will continue to climb back up to the levels seen in 2008-10:

  • 110 / 802 (2013)
  • 130 / 629 (2014)
  • 180 / 585 (2015)
  • 180 / 579 (2016)
  • 199 / 594 (2017) (a 33 percent funding rate!)

A 33 percent funding rate of fellowships is something to be proud of, but the other interesting number of course is the denominator – in 2008, the awards were 25 percent more numerous, but the success rate was only 21 percent. NSERC appears to be having its cake and eating it too since they have still enforced their “you may only apply once in your lifetime” rule. While this has obviously reduced application number, I wonder what the knock-on effect was. I would love to get some extra information from NSERC on the demographics of those who applied:

  1. What was the balance of applications from first year post-PhD versus second year post-PhD? If I were hedging my bets as a young scientist and only had one shot, I’d be waiting until the very last moment to apply for an NSERC PDF to ensure my chances of getting it were highest. This means making an application in year two versus year one when your CV would presumably be stronger.
  2. Where did the applications come from? My concern with the fallout of point one is that the majority of those NOT applying would need to find a research home without a fellowship for their first year post-PhD. There is still a very real danger that the NSERC decision to only permit one application per lifetime starts to streamline our best and brightest into pre-defined academic tracks. Unless they are truly exceptional, they would likely wait until their second year – the chances that it will be in a poorly resourced research group are virtually nil. So, all the bright kids go to the already established well-resourced research groups.
  3. What was the male:female ratio of applicants in first versus second year applicants? What was it like in the pre-2011 days?

NSERC must track these numbers and I hope that their internal people are asking tough questions about the structure of their programs. If you want to create a country that supports top calibre early career female researchers for example, questions like number 3 above are critical to understanding whether changes in programs encourage or discourage applications from women.

All of the above said, I think it is fantastic that NSERC has begun to turn things around – I was incredibly worried when they were directly funding fewer than 100 fellows across Canada and doubling that number over the last five years is a very promising sign that investment is once again going in the direction of people.

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.
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  1. Phil / April 22, 2018 at 10:33

    Unfortunately rates have not changed at all…in 2008 etc there were twice as many applications because you could apply twice; with very few exceptions only second year post-doc applicants were successful, however. It is optics only. Now only second year applicants apply, as the once-in-a-lifetime rule took effect five years ago, to compete for the same number of available awards as there were previous.

    • David Kent / April 22, 2018 at 11:19

      Yes Phil – I hear you on this, there is still much work to be done. However, there is an upward trend with respect to the absolute numbers of fellowships awarded (this is good). I agree it still has some way to go before it gets back to “the good ol’ days”

  2. Jaewoo Kim / April 25, 2018 at 14:05

    Certainly, it is good to hear that things are finally turning around. But as Phil said, a long way to be similar to the levels in pre-2011… And even if we reach back to pre-2011 (“the Good old days”) funding levels, I am not so sure that is enough for Canada’s research and post-graduate programs to compete with other countries or non-academic sectors.

    As you know and pointed out many times before, award levels, benefits, job security, future prospect, etc for post-doctoral fellows in Canada are not that great. This exacerbates given the tax/scholarship exemptions/implications. More post-doc unions have been formed post-2011 with tax implications and other benefits, etc, but not much has changed across the university landscape. For female fellows, this is more discouraging for many aspects.

    At this pace, “brain/talent exodus” is inevitable, continues at post-graduate/research institutions including STEM unless some drastic changes/reforms happen at both funding agencies (NSERC,…) and universities.

  3. Jim Clark / April 25, 2018 at 14:53

    I looked at NSERC grants for Individual Discovery Grants, CRCs, and CERCs in five year bins from 1997/2001 to 2012/2016 on the perhaps incorrect assumption these were the major grants to individual researchers. The amount for Individual Discovery grants increased from $1.08 B to $1.60 B. Seems good, but $1.08 B in 1999 (mid point of 5 year bin) is equivalent to $1.47 B in 2014 adjusted for inflation, not markedly lower than the “increased” amount of $1.60 B. I suspect that over the same years “science inflation” would be higher than everyday inflation and that the number of researchers would have increased quite a bit.

    Total funding for these programs increased much more, of course, doubling from $1.12 B to $2.26 B, but over the last five year period $0.67 B went to CRCs and CERCs, almost 30% of the funding.

    Personally, I think David is grasping at straws right now to find some sign of improvement in NSERC. Looking ahead, I hope he is right, but NSERC has a long, long way to go to return to a time when students and researchers were more adequately funded by NSERC.