Why we can't all move to Canada

It's almost cliche at this point. Every time there is an issue in the US you can almost count down the seconds until someone decides to claim they are moving to Canada. And what's not to like? Socially liberal*, universal health care, curling and funding rates so high that they give you a grant for crossing the boarder, right?

The current situation with NSF funding doesn't appear to be any different in this regard. Low funding rates and the recent application changes have people once again invoking the tired "Why can't we do it like Canada?" Look, I love our neighbors to the North as much as the next person, but there are things you can pull off when you have a population the size of California that just won't work in the US. If you need a primer on the Canadian system, a good one is here, but the summary is as follows: The NSF equivalent, NSERC, maintains 60% success rates (currently); grants are for 5 years; the annual total is usually small by US standards, roughly $20-50K; students are not typically supported off grants; there is no overhead take by the university**.

On the plus side, 5 years provides stability and the high success rate means that labs do not typically burn out due to lack of funding. The flip side of that is the career trajectory of new PIs can be skewed. First time grants are often between $15-25K over a five year stretch. This is your proving time to show you are worth a bump at your first renewal, otherwise you my find yourself locked into <$20K budget for A DECADE. But back to the first 5 years, at $20K/year you're not hiring a postdoc or tech. More likely you'll have two students at a time, who are on a relatively short leash when it comes to reagents. Maybe this is an issue for your science, maybe it's not, but don't forget that all your conference travel, publication costs and in some cases, student summer salary, come out of that $20K. You can only hold a single NSERC grant at a time, so unless you can go to foundations or CIHR (the NIH equivalent), you're locked into that budget for the duration.

If you make proverbial lemonade, you might get a bump in year 6, but there is no guarantee of this and I've had colleagues with similar records get doubled or maintain the same budget for their second grants. Additionally, if you do get money outside NSERC, you're almost guaranteed to get short shrift from NSERC in future applications in favor of those reliant on NSERC, regardless of your record.

The result, however, is that people doing science that costs a bit more end up having to pick away for the first 5 years, rather than come out with guns blazing. Start-up packages are also considerably smaller than the US, and buying equipment for the lab is often tied to applying for CFI equipment grants. These also have a high funding rate, but there is the risk that you'll have a largely empty lab for 6-12 months. All of these factors make it more difficult (though people certainly do it) to really take off as a junior PI.

But let's assume that we can deal with a drawn out career arch if the result is more people funded. Here's the bigger problem: the universities.

I already wrote this in a comment on the post linked above, but entire funding structure of universities would have to be reworked. The issue with the Canadian system is that it CAN’T work in the US without massive changes to how universities operate. US universities use the overhead from individual grants as a major portion of their budget, whereas this is not the case in Canada. If NSF started funding at $30-50K/year, not only would labs who have to support students (+ tuition) off that get little to no work done, but universities would lose a huge amount in revenue (not to mention that the Uni would take 1/3 of that money anyway).

On the surface you can just say that the universities will have to compensate in some way, but it also means that most larger universities will focus their hiring on NIH-fundable PIs, even more than they already do. Basic science in the US would then suffer BOTH from being underfunded and phased out of university hiring priorities. The end result would likely be a situation where smaller universities do basic science and larger ones do NIH stuff, which is not ideal. Let us also not lose sight of the fact that "basic" research is a critical springboard to medical research, often in unexpected ways.

Changes at the funding source would have to be matched with changes at the university level, which are unlikely if NIH is unaffected. I am not at all claiming this is impossible, but merely that we have to take into account the larger structure before we tout another system as being "more fair" or "better".

Much in the same way that people want universal health care but don't want higher taxes, it's important to realize that the implications of different systems have far reaching effects that may not be obvious on the surface. If all you see if "60% success rate!!!!!" you are missing the larger context.

There's no free lunch out there, folks. Decide what the priorities are and then figure out how we pay for them.

* On average. Alberta hasn't received the memo yet.

** Although this is changing slightly and Canadian universities are getting creative about ways to "charge" for certain facilities, resulting in some grant money claw-back.

11 responses so far

  • Canada has a no criminal/douchebag rule, so about half of us would be left on our (US) side of the border if we tried to migrate.

  • Alyssa says:

    I am not very knowledgeable in this area, but I do know my university charges an overhead on the grants I have access too. Perhaps I'm just lucky at work at one of the few universities in Canada that does so.

    I agree though, there are benefits and downfalls of both systems. Canada does rock though.

  • Alyssa, the Canadian tri-council research agencies (CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC - the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada) don't allow universities to collect overhead, but some other funding agencies (there are approximately a gazillion just in my field) do. However, I think the only grants we currently hold that do allow overhead are US (NIH and DOD) grants! Even for those, the rate we get is much lower than that charged by most US institutions, and only allowable on certain items.

    BTW, the success rate of CIHR Operating Grants (equivalent of the NIH R01) is nowhere near 60%. Not even close, unfortunately! The only NSERC grants I've been involved with have been joint NSERC-CIHR initiatives, so I don't have any direct experience of their normal competitions.

  • anoncanuck says:

    Canadian universities do receive overhead on tri-council grants, it's just not calculated on a per grant basis, or deducted from the amount awarded to the researcher on each individual grant. Each university qualifies for funds to cover the indirect costs of research that are a percentage of the all tri-council awards made to all researchers at the university each year. For big universities, it works out to just over 20%: http://www.indirectcosts.gc.ca/calculations/index_e.asp
    Unfortunately, this is far lower than the 'true' indirect costs of supporting research, which are probably closer to 40%, so many universities are effectively subsidizing research with other revenue. The advantage of this system is that the funds are transferred in a lump sum from the federal government to the institution and so individual researchers are not subject to the same pressure to 'earn' some overhead for the department that can happen in the U.S.

  • Jeremy Fox says:

    I agree with the last line of the post, though I think some of the lead-in is a little unfortunately phrased. In my experience, many of my US colleagues are completely unaware of how things work in Canada and so tend to assume Canada is just like the US. So from their perspective "Why can't we all move to Canada?" isn't a "tired" idea. I raised the issue on the Oikos blog not in order to keep beating a dead horse, but because in my experience it's not a dead horse for many of my colleagues.

    Your remark that there's no overhead on NSERC grants is a little misleading, I think. It's my understanding that, while overhead is not part of the budget of individual grants, NSERC totals up the amount of NSERC funding a university receives in a given year and then pays a percentage of that (20%? I'm not sure...) to the university as overhead. I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong on this.

    You note that NSERC grants are smaller than typical grants from US funding agencies, but neglect to note that Canadian academics don't have to spend money on some things that US academics do (e.g., summer salary for themselves (Canadian academic appointments are 12 month appointments), tuition and academic-year salary for grad students). So yes, NSERC grants are smaller on average, but the difference is not as large as one might think at first glance.

    A minor point: you remark in passing that NSERC investigators with other sources of funding are "almost guaranteed" to get penalized with lower levels of funding from NSERC. That hasn't been my experience at all, and is hard to square with what I know of the experience of others in my field (e.g., Dolph Schluter at UBC probably has one of the biggest NSERC grants in Canada as well as big funding from other sources). And my two closest colleagues at Calgary have been head of the ecology & evolution NSERC panel recently and according to them this is not NSERC's practice. I take it your experience, or the experiences of your colleagues, have been very different? Or perhaps you know of some applicants who were disappointed in the funding they received and assumed it must've been b/c they had other funding sources?

    Turning back to the big issues, from the perspective of individual PIs, it's a risk-reward trade-off. Do you want a system with lower funding average funding levels but with a relatively low risk of being cut off entirely, or a system with a much higher risk of getting completely cut off but with higher funding levels if you do get funded? (And don't forget that all the time you spend writing, revising, and reviewing NSF grants is time Canadians can spend doing science). I've asked many US colleagues this question (all of of whom have had success with NSF) and gotten a full range of answers. As to whether it's feasible for NSF to move in this direction even if it wanted to, given the university funding issues you quite rightly raise, I have no idea. But I do think the question is at least worth asking, especially since issues like the success rate the granting agency aims for are at least partially (not entirely, but partially) independent of issues like the overhead rate the granting agency pays. Maybe Americans can't all move to Canada, but maybe they can "move north a bit" or "move to the border" (i.e. come up with some kind of hybrid system) if it seems like a hybrid might fall in a desirable place on the relevant trade-off curves.

  • @ anoncanuck: thanks for that info! I just deal with individual grants, so it's very interesting to hear about indirects at the institutional level.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Jeremy, you're still missing the point: NSF science would be undercutting itself at the university level if it went to an NSERC model without massive changes in how US institutions run. That's by far the biggest problem with transferring the Canadian model to the US.

    Besides that, there would have be major changes in how we judge career arc. For instance, my lab spent roughly 3-4 times the budget of a typical first NSERC grant, just in direct costs last year. Maybe we're not being as efficient as we could be, but there's no question we would have less data and fewer people in an NSERC system.

    Also, with regard to the overhead issue, I was only pointing out that the money is not taken on a per grant basis, directly from the total budget.

    Lastly, I have several colleagues who were very clearly cut in their NSERC grants following the acquisition of non-NSERC money, despite a ramp up in their productivity. That very sentiment even popped up in the reviews of one colleague. Yes, there are exceptions, but at least in my field there is a clear trend across roughly 6 people at a range of career stages.

    I'm not arguing that the Canadian system is bad at all. There is some incredible science coming out of Canada and some top notch programs. There is likely a compromise that could be made between the two systems, but the changes would have to be wide-spread in the US for there to be any real difference. It's not just as simple as NSF slashing the allowable budgets for proposals and increasing the success rate.

  • Peter says:

    I know we're not really scientists, but if you're a mathematician, you really don't want to go to Canada -- the recent changes in NSERC funding have led to drastic (and unexplained) cuts in mathematics as Piece of mind has analyzed this development extensively.

  • Dan Gaston says:

    NSERC operating grant success rates might have averaged out at 60% but keep in mind it varies across fields, all of which have different mandated funding priorities as well.

    And at the Post-Doctoral level the success rate this year for NSERC PDF's was only 9%.

  • Aisling says:

    This is interesting insight on the US vs. Canada funding system. I wish some people would have the same critical and down-to-earth analysis about the French vs. US system before they started implementing reforms. The research system in France used to be based on recurring funding granted to accredited labs that would then decide how to share it between the teams. So similarly to Canada, no single team had huge amounts of money, but every group had some funding. On top of that, researchers were more or less free from grant-writing duties, unless they wanted to supplement their recurring funding, which most people made do with. But what happened is that some administrators suddenly started to realize that US labs who did get R01-like funding had a *lot* more funding than the average French lab, so that had to be much better. As a result, we now have a National Funding Agency (NSF-wannabe) and researchers have to spend so much time grant-writing and grant-reviewing that they hardly manage to have time to do any research, especially those who teach, since teaching loads in France are basically twice as much as in the US. Recurring funds are a disappearing species since all the money goes to the granting agency to distribute. And finally, even the labs who are supposed to get the big bucks realize that a significant portion of those are lost to overhead costs. So in the end, we're still not getting labs with R01-level funding, and we're loosing much of the production in the average lab due to lack of funds and mandatory time spent in grant writing and grant-reviewing... In the end I can only agree that one blanket method doesn't fit all. You do have to thoroughly understand a system and its consequences before thinking it can easily apply to your circumstances on the basis of one appealing characteristic.

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