NSERC peer review costs more than funding scientists.

Depressing or infuriating, you decide.

Gordon, R. and Poulin, B.J. (2009). Cost of the NSERC science grant peer review system exceeds the cost of giving every qualified researcher a baseline grant. Accountability in Research 16: 13-40.

Using Natural Science and Engineering Research Council Canada (NSERC) statistics, we show that the $40,000 (Canadian) cost of preparation for a grant application and rejection by peer review in 2007 exceeded that of giving every qualified investigator a direct baseline discovery grant of $30,000 (average grant). This means the Canadian Federal Government could institute direct grants for 100% of qualified applicants for the same money. We anticipate that the net result would be more and better research since more research would be conducted at the critical idea or discovery stage. Control of quality is assured through university hiring, promotion and tenure proceedings, journal reviews of submitted work, and the patent process, whose collective scrutiny far exceeds that of grant peer review. The greater efficiency in use of grant funds and increased innovation with baseline funding would provide a means of achieving the goals of the recent Canadian Value for Money and Accountability Review. We suggest that developing countries could leapfrog ahead by adopting from the start science grant systems that encourage innovation.

Hat tip: Sandwalk, Blog Around the Clock

8 thoughts on “NSERC peer review costs more than funding scientists.

  1. $30K is an average grant in Canada? Ouch. I did a postdoc in Canada but that was before I had to deal with the grant system. What can be done for $30K? I’m used to dealing with numbers in the hundreds of thousands, although I know my field of genomics is not the cheapest science.

    I’m not disagreeing with the conclusion, obviously sending $30K to a scientist is better than spending $40K in review, but I’m curious what sorts of things can be done that cheaply.

  2. This reminds me of stories I’ve heard about the Canadian military, during WWII and other conflicts, being considered the go-to people for ad-hoc, beg-borrow-steal, duck tape and chewing gum solutions to logistical problems. Skills apparently honed through chronic underfunding. Some research (but not genomics as far as I know) can be accomplished using driftwood and dollar store items.

  3. $40K to prepare and evaluate a grant application – interesting to quantify it. It’s always seemed like a waste of resources to have sharp researchers spend so much time applying for money and so little time at the bench or mentoring.

  4. Jonathan Badger asked, “What can be done for $30K?”

    Unless thing have changed, one difference between NSERC and its American equivalents is that there is no overhead in Canadian grants: every penny goes to the researcher.

    That overhead brings in so much money to American universities means that expensive science is favoured over productive researchers.

    A letter in Science last year (I think) considered two scientists who write the same number of papers, but one brings in (say) $150,000 in external grants, while the other one brings in $15,000 in external grants. The former is likely to be more highly valued by the institution, even though they are both producing the same amount. Heck, the cheap lab could be out-producing the expensive one, and still not valued as much. There is no reward for being efficient.

    Also consider that, in basic biology, the cost of subjects varies by orders of magnitude.

    I work on invertebrates, and partly because of that, I could run my lab very productively for years on $30,000.

    Could I do more with more money? Sure. Are those who run more expensive labs doing good science? Sure. But is a lab that costs 10 times more necessarily being 10 times more productive? Maybe. Maybe not.

  5. Fair enough. Yes, overhead is certainly a major reason why US institutions encourage grant-writing and large budgets; they get 50%-70% of the money. And as you say, costs vary with the field. But what about personnel? Even if the cost of reagents, animals, etc. can be reduced to $30K, you couldn’t support a tech or postdoc besides…

  6. With regard to personnel, the original article is only suggesting baseline funding for some projects, mainly at the initial discovery / basic research phase. The authors estimate that they are talking about 11% of the Canadian federal research budget. Things like technicians and advanced students would be more liable to be supported from the grants in the other 90% of the budget.

    Even better, universities should just hire technicians. They’re worth their weight in gold.

    And, just as a reminder of the possibilities of small scale science, I currently support three fantastic undergraduates on less than $30K. Yes, it would be nice to have some people who were a bit more experienced and around for a little longer term. But all of my current undergraduate should end up working with me for over a year, and they do good research.

    Do I plan to getting that undergrad research in Nature, Science, or Cell? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not good science.

    Again, I don’t want anyone to think I’m taking shots at people who want to run big labs with lots of doctoral students and post-docs. I’m just saying that’s not the only way to run a productive research lab — although the current American funding system seems to promote it as The One True Path of Scienceâ„¢.

  7. Something else that came to mind. If I want to recruit a student to work for me, it would really help to have dependable money.

    I could start recruiting undergraduates in their first year and promise them support throughout their degree. They get four year’s research experience, I get four year’s worth of data and work — arguably a better deal than a Master’s student, even taking into account a slightly longer time to train an undergraduate compare to a graduate student.

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