Health care in the USA — some data.

Here I won’t comment directly on the health care “debate” in the USA, not even as a citizen of a country that already has universal health care (i.e., any developed nation other than the USA). Instead, I will just post this clip from New Scientist, which talks about some of the actual data on health care costs and effectiveness.

Here are the links mentioned in the video:

HT: Evolving Thoughts

Funding for research in Canada round-up

For incisive commentary on the topic of science policy in Canada, I direct you to Rob Annan’s excellent blog over at Don’t Leave Canada Behind. Most recently, he provides a response to a rather misplaced critique of Canadian researchers by Michael Bliss in the National Post.

Just to clarify, we’re not just asking for more money. We’re responding to several major policy issues that are going to affect Canadian research across the nation:

1) Cuts to the three granting agencies.
2) Lack of support for Genome Canada.
3) Cutting the MSc scholarship to 1 year.
4) A focus on few, very large scholarships instead of supporting established labs.
5) Investment in buildings rather than people.
6) Dismissal of the science advisor.
7) Decisions about what kinds of research will be funded based on short-term returns.
8) An emphasis on applied studies at the expense of basic science.

Emerging Leaders of the Americas.

Just got this through email.

Emerging Leaders in the Americas Program (ELAP)

At the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that Canada will allocate $18 million over the next four years for a new scholarship program. The Emerging Leaders in the Americas Program (ELAP) will award up to 1600 new scholarships for Latin American and Caribbean students to pursue studies or research in Canada.

The ELAP will support human capital development and a new generation of leaders in the Americas while strengthening linkages between Canadian institutions and those in the region.

The first round of ELAP scholarships is now underway for study or research commencing in the Fall of 2009. The deadline for applications from Canadian post-secondary institutions is June 29, 2009 .

Program Description

The scholarships will be facilitated through inter-institutional exchange agreements and will provide students with the opportunity to undertake study or research at Canadian universities and colleges. Recipients will remain students of their home institutions during this exchange. In addition, the ELAP will offer a study tour component to selected students to expose them to Canadian governance, business and civil society in key priority areas.

I am all for supporting students from Latin America and the Caribbean (two of my first grad students were originally from S. America). However, two issues:

  • “Recipients will remain students of their home institutions during this exchange.” So, we don’t get supervisor credit (co-supervisor would be fine, however.)
  • “Key priority areas”. We know what that means, and it ain’t basic science.

Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships.

So, the results of the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships have been released. A big congratulations to this year’s 166 recipients, who represent promising new researchers. However, it cannot be pointed out enough how poorly this program meshes with funding for other Canadian students and scientists. $50,000 for 3 years is what they get, which is 2.5x more than regular NSERC scholarship winners, $10,000 more than postdocs get, and nearly twice the average grant for people actually starting a lab. Remember, too, that this is twice what they gave one of our leading statisticians this time.

What could have been funded with the $25 million instead?

  • Regular PhD scholarships for 3 years: 395, or
  • Discovery Grants at the average of $34K for 5 years: 146

Furthermore, note the following:

  • The scholarships can be awarded to non-Canadians. The plan, I presume, is to draw top students to Canada. How likely is it that they’ll stay when the find out that there is now a 65% chance that they will get an NSERC grant, and that it will average about $34,000 to run an entire lab?
  • The intent is to award 500 of these per year. That’s $25 million per year on scholarship students, folks. Meanwhile, 35% of existing researchers — who already have PhDs, completed postdoctoral research, landed a job at a Canadian university, and have built a lab whose primary functions include training students — get nothing, while the rest receive $15,000 less on average than single scholarship students.
  • These scholarships represent a direct trade-off between funding the MSc program for 2 years instead of 1 year. In other words, an already very competitive scholarship program just became decidedly elitist — better to give a few people an outrageous sum than to fund more of our other top students in the country.
  • These scholarships further exacerbate the inequalities in research support among universities in Canada. Not surprisingly, the largest schools got lots, mid-sized schools got some, and most of the smaller schools got none.

I have yet to meet a colleague who thinks this is a good idea.

Casualties of NSERC peer review.

Two courageous colleagues have spoken up about the results of the recent Discovery Grant review from NSERC, which was based on new evaluation criteria. Both had previously been funded, and it is hard to imagine how these results are sensible. I think sharing stories like this is very important because otherwise a) researchers can become very discouraged, and b) systemic problems with the review system may go unnoticed for a long time. As Dr. Nancy Reid (University of Toronto) stated, individuals in this situation should not “hide in the office feeling you’ve done something wrong”. I am planning to share some of my own experiences with NSERC peer review soon. But in the meantime, you can read the plea from Dr. France Dufresne (Université du Québec à Rimouski) here, and Dr. Reid has graciously allowed me to repost her message below.

As news about the results of this year’s discovery grant competition trickle out, the list of alarming stories seems to grow. Here is my story.

My DG grant was cut this year from $48,000 to $25,000. Grants in statistics tend to be low, and our GSC (14) is perpetually short of money. My grant of $48k was the largest among those re-applying this year, and among the top 5 or so in the country. The last few years have seen most of the top grants cut to help the pressure on junior people who need to move up through the system. So I expected to see a decrease in my grant.

But, I didn’t expect to be knee-capped. This is just $1k short of the maximum cut allowed (50%).

My first reactions were deeply personal: I assumed that my standing, my research, and my training of HQP had been found wanting, I assumed that this was probably a correct judgment, and I started asking myself whether it was time to think about retiring. I asked myself why a group of my peers felt that it was necessary to deliver such a blow, even if I was judged to be slipping. I was embarrassed to tell even my closest friends what had happened.

But wait! The referees’ reports are quite positive! I looked at my proposal again: it was not bad! I had a long list of HQP! I had won a national and an international award! In fact, my proposal, my record of publication, training and achievement are very similar to past competitions.

This year, as we all know, NSERC instituted a completely different mechanism for determining grant amounts. They will of course be monitoring the situation, and assessing what worked and what didn’t. On their web page we read:

The emphasis on quality assessment under the new common rating system has achieved the desired objectives. It preserves continuity of funding for the most productive researchers who maintain a strong record of contributions to research and training. It also permits a more rapid ramp up of funding for applicants with superior accomplishments and research plans, no matter their history in the system.

Sounds admirable. But is it working?

We won’t know unless we share our stories. And NSERC won’t know unless it hears from us. Don’t hide in your office feeling that you’ve done something wrong. If there is any doubt in your mind about the adequacy of the review process and the outcome for your Discovery Grant, submit an appeal. And share your story.

I suppose it should be pointed out that the writing, reviewing, and denial of the proposals from these two productive researchers cost taxpayers about $80,000 according to one recent analysis. Again, we should ask whether the peer review system is working as well as it should, or indeed whether it should be abandoned in favour of baseline grants for all qualified researchers in Canada.

If you have a similar experience to share, I encourage you to visit Don’t Leave Canada Behind and post your story.

The problem with infrastructure without operations: Churchill Northern Studies Centre.

The National Post reported yesterday on the paradoxical and supremely frustrating approach of funding infrastructure while cutting support for people to use it, citing the example of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. The CNSC received a much-needed infusion of funds to update the facilities, to the tune of $11 million, but rather than having their $80,000 operating grant from NSERC elevated to $120,000 as requested in light of rising needs, they had it cut totally.

As someone who has conducted research at Churchill (and will be working there again this summer), this is an example that is especially close to home.

I envy Americans for their politicians for the first time.

“At such a difficult moment, there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science. That support for research is somehow a luxury at a moment defined by necessities. I fundamentally disagree. Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been. And if there was ever a day that reminded us of our shared stake in science and research, it’s today.”

– US President Barack Obama, Apr. 27, 2009

(Read the speech here)