Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Some to Many, Much to Few

The Canadian government just handed out $900 million to 13 universities to help jumpstart big research programs.  This is the second round of this particular program, and, as always, raises the question of whether it makes sense to give that much to so few.  I am not sure, and I am one of the folks who have benefited from similar programs. 

The Canada Research Chair program was an effort, like this one, for the federal government to get involved in higher education, which is run by the provinces.  It was an effort to reverse the brain drain by keeping Canadians, attracting lost Canadians (those who moved to the US or elsewhere) and random foreigners to replace the lost Canadians (my category).  The sums here were not so outrageous--$100k per year for five years (renewable once) for the junior version, $200k per year for seven years (renewable forever)--as they barely or fell short of matching salaries/benefits/research funding for regular positions. 
There is a newer, more expensive version of this: the Canada Excellence Research Chairs, which gives $10million over seven years (as opposed to $1.4m) to universities to attract a hot scholar.  The original CRC program had plenty of chairs and funded spots all over Canada.  The CERC program is much smaller, which means focused efforts on a few.

The Social Science and Humanities Research Council recently moved from giving some to a lot for three years (40% or so rejection rate) to giving a lot to some for five (20%).  I received the former, and am now enjoying the latter.  The bigger amount definitely encouraged this current project to be more ambitious.  I am ambivalent about this change as two of my three grants from the prior version got approved the first time BUT I had to go through the grant spin cycle every 3-4 years.  It took two tries to get this new version of the grant, but now I don't have to apply again until 2020 or so.  And the money is helping me pursue a big project. 

I don't know how to adjudicate the more for a few/less for money tradeoff.  I do think the switch that SSHRC made recently should prove to be testable--whether the old program produced more publications/more cites/more social science than the new. 

I will say that the recent moves of concentrating resources runs against Canadian instincts towards equity.  As an American, I am not so fussed.  As someone who would prefer to be funded than unfunded but prefers not to apply for a ton of grants (despite, well, applying for a ton of grants), I am ambivalent. 

I am not sure there is a right choice, but I do wonder about nearly a billion dollars going to 13 places.  The good news is that the big partnership grant that I am writing right now is all about partnership, so it would mean getting a bunch of dollars and then sharing them.  Maybe that will happen with the $900 million, or not.

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