Category Archives: research funding

Robert Boyle’s Monstrous Head

Every now and again, a paper is published that’s so peculiar, or so apparently irrelevant to any important question, that it attracts derision rather than citation.  Perhaps it picks up a Golden Fleece Award, or more fun, an IgNobel Prize; or perhaps it just gets roundly mocked on Twitter*.  Much more than every now and then, a paper gets published that just doesn’t seem to connect to anything, and rather than being derided it’s simply ignored.

Perhaps you think this kind of thing is a recent phenomenon.  Continue reading

Painting of Hennig Brand discovering phosphorus

Open science, phosphorus, and economic impact

Image: The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosopher’s Stone (1771), by Joseph Wright, illustrating Hennig Brand’s discovery of phosphorus. Collection of The Derby Museum and Art Gallery.

Warning: long-ish. If you like, skip the middle section (history of the discovery of phosphorus) or skip the opening and conclusion (open science vs. commercialization). It’s kind of two posts in one.


Last week I was working on a grant proposal, to an agency called the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation.  I was feeling a bit soiled, since NBIF is unabashedly about industrial innovation and commercialization, and I’ve always fancied myself a basic/pure/curiosity-driven scientist*.  A move into more applied work (mostly forestry-related) is new for me.  I really struggled to write the section about how the intellectual property generated by my proposal would be commercialized – partly because I just don’t have any interest in doing so, and partly because (as a consequence) I really don’t know how.

One thing was obvious, though: Continue reading

Supervisory inflation and “value-added” mentoring

Photos: “Mentor”, from my cherished Oxford Universal Dictionary (1933; 1955 reprint). As a very small child, I sat on this dictionary at my grandmother’s dinner table. When I no longer needed a boost in height, it provided a boost to my vocabulary instead. Yes, I’m a nerd. Longtail widowbird: Public Domain by Mohanr53 via

It’s grant reviewing season*, and that’s gotten me thinking about mentorship. NSERC (Canada’s main basic-science granting agency) refers to the students and employees a PI supervises as HQP (for highly qualified personnel), and weights both past HQP training record and future HQP training plan very heavily in its deliberations**. Although NSERC funding rates are relatively high (and the grants correspondingly small, and that’s good), they’ve been tightening somewhat, and this seems to be driving some remarkable supervisory inflation.

What do I mean by “supervisory inflation”? Continue reading

Why grant funding should be spread thinly: some followup

Last month I posted “Why grant funding should be spread thinly”.  In a nutshell, I provided a simple mathematical model that I think supports the argument for an agency’s awarding many smaller grants rather than just a few very large ones. The discussion in the Comments section of that post was lively, no doubt because as scientist we’re heavily invested in the way society supports, or doesn’t support, our work. Our grants give us the tools we need to do the science we’re passionate about, and that passion comes out when we talk about granting policy.

My earlier post left some loose ends. Continue reading

Why grant funding should be spread thinly

How should a granting agency distribute the funds at its disposal? Different agencies have different answers to that question. The NSF (USA), for example, has traditionally awarded operating grants to rather few applicants, with each successful applicant getting quite a lot of money. NSERC (Canada), on the other hand, has traditionally awarded operating grants to most applicants, but with each successful applicant getting less money (a recent snapshot and some discussion here). NSERC has been moving slowly but steadily in the direction of the NSF model, with lower funding percentages, larger grants for top-ranked applications, and new categories of super-grants intended to recognize “excellence” (e.g., Vanier graduate scholarships, Banting postdoctoral scholarships, Canada Excellence Research Chairs program). Scientists have widely decried NSERC’s shift (for example, here) and NSF’s practice (for example, here and here) – but are they right? How should an agency like NSERC optimally distribute its funds? Continue reading