2011 Winter CMS Town Hall Notes

The 2011 Winter CMS Meeting took place this past weekend. On Sunday (2011-12-11), there was a CMS Town Hall meeting. The discussion was led by a panel consisting of Long Range Plan Committee Chair Nancy Reid, CMS President Jacques Hurtubise, and CMS Director Johan Rudnick (who was partially obscured by a poinsetta). Attendees to the town hall meeting were fed a free lunch.

Long Range Plan Update

Nancy gave a status update on the long range plan. She reported that the committee met in October and is in the process of writing. They hope to have a draft version of the report available in late February with a target goal of final publication in June 2012. Nancy also reported that she and Math-NSERC Liaison Committee Chair Walter Craig had sent a letter of recommendations to NSERC for this year’s Discovery Grants competition. The letter is posted here and also on the LRP web space.

Nancy reported that the overall federal funding envelope for math/stats through NSERC (Discovery grants, Institute, …) is around \$21M/y. To function effectively, the Institutes require additional funds from the Provinces and other partners. To avoid the departures of talented mathematicians from Canada as forecasted last year, there is a need for more funding. I asked if the LRP report would contrast the circumstances faced by Canada’s financially threatened math/stats community with the recent \$100M ( \$50M federal, \$50M Ontario) gift to the Perimeter Institute. Nancy replied that the LRP report will only address funds granted through NSERC and will not comment on grants given through other sources.

Persistent Concerns about NSERC and Discovery Grants

The open discussion revealed that there remain serious concerns within the Canadian mathematical community about NSERC and the Discovery Grants program. Nancy reported that consultations with NSERC have “not always been easy.” Brett Stevens expressed the view that the weight given to the training of highly qualified personnel in evaluating the merit of proposals was problematic. Nancy relayed that these issues had been raised with Isabelle Blain. Based on those conversations, Nancy predicted that no substantial review of the new system would take place until 2014.

According to Nancy, NSERC staff claims that no discipline other than mathematics has complained about the new peer review system. I relayed that there have been reports by computer scientists and physicists of troubles with the outcomes of their recent competitions. NSERC might not be aware of the troubles in other disciplines but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Through the Liaison Committee, the LRP process, the Institutes, meetings of chairs, trans-Canada research collaborations, and meetings of the CMS and SSC, the math/stats community in Canada has strong communications channels. These channels allowed us to see the anomalies in the 2011 outcome through a national lens. I wonder if other disciplines would see problems with the conference model if they too had a wide enough vantage point on the outcome of their recent Discovery Grants competitions.

There was some discussion about how NSERC has moved funds away from the Discovery Grants program into a potpourri of programs supporting commercialization and academic-industrial partnerships. As mentioned in the 2007 report of the International Review panel (which led to the new peer review system), pure mathematics is unfairly punished when basic research funds are redirected toward short term commercialization goals.

Eddie Campbell isolated an issue that our community must confront. Should NSERC fund lots of smaller grants or fewer larger grants? There is a fixed amount of money in the federal budget for mathematics. How should those funds be spread out? Jacques mentioned that “spreading peanut butter” is a frequent metaphor used in discussions around this issue.


I highlighted Minister Tony Clement’s call for federal government transparency. With this background, I asked Nancy if the LRP could arrange for the release of NSERC President Suzanne Fortier’s slides from her public presentation at the Summer 2011 CMS meeting. Nancy replied that the LRP has the slides but has been instructed not to circulate them. Nancy also reported that the LRP had requested data regarding the appeals numbers and success rate. She said the success rate is running around 25% but the LRP had not yet received the requested data. In light of Mr. Clement’s call for federal government transparency, I wonder why the data presented publicly by NSERC’s President to the Canadian Mathematical Society and requested by the LRP remains concealed from public view.

Immigration Policy Concerns

David Pike expressed frustration that Canada’s immigration rules prevent international graduate students from seeking permanent residency. I didn’t quite understand the details. David reported that the policy is seriously affecting his finishing PhD student who wishes to stay in Canada but will probably be forced to leave. Canada and the provinces invest heavily in the training of international graduate students. David reported that current immigration policy prevents Canada and the provinces from benefiting from this investment since these highly qualified graduates are often required to leave after earning their PhD.

The CMS town hall meeting was a great opportunity for discussion among members of the Canadian math/stats community. I look forward to the LRP report and am grateful for all the hard work that Nancy Reid and the committee have done.


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7 comments as of now

  1. I would add the following to Jim’s good discussion of the town hall and the real problems the mathematical science are having with NSERC:

    First, in her reply to me about my concern with the over-emphasis on HQP in evaluating a Discover Grant Proposal, Nancy did make it clear that the mathematical community is divided on this issue. I do not know how divided or how diverse, but it is reasonable to point out that not feel like me.

    Second, I also raised the concern that the success rates are too low (which was echoed by Eddie Campbell later) At least Eddie and I spoke in favour of more grants even if they must therefore be smaller and I don’t remember anyone speaking out in favour of fewer smaller grants. Personally I think that the strength of the mathematics research in Canada depends on the strength of the community and would like to see success rates of at least 80%. I do not believe that this is an argument for mediocrity nor a rejection of “excellence”. It is giving the community what they need to be active, vibrant, communicate and make major advancements.

    I think David Pike’s point was that until recently a grad student could apply for and receive Landed Immigrant Status while they were a student and thus, once graduated, be able to apply for and compete fully in the Canadian academic job market. They are no longer permitted to apply for Landed Immigrant status until they are no longer a student and currently only get a 1 year working visa after finishing in which to both gain employment experience (which is important on the landed immigrant application) and apply for Landed Status.

    Finally, I think Brennan Holt Chesley spoke about trying to get a more nation-wide communication going for undergrads involved in research, especially NSERC USRAs and thought maybe the CMS could help out.

    thanks Jim for blogging this.

  2. Thanks Brett! It was Richard Cerezo who spoke out about NSERC USRAs. If there are sufficient funds to maintain internationally competitive research programs by Canada’s leading researchers, I like the idea that success rates stay high. However, I am opposed to maintaining an 80% success rate if it requires that excellent researchers have their grants cut in half due to a shortage of funds.

    There is an implicit assumption in NSERC’s funding formulae that merit should correlate with funding level. This is not necessarily the best strategy. I know some researchers of top quality who don’t lead big groups of junior scholars and others of good but not world-class level who do have big groups. NSERC should provide funds adequate to run researcher’s programs and that means that budgets need to be defined and met. A more flexible funding formulae might allow for more researchers to be funded.

  3. Rob Thacker @ 2011-12-18 09:52

    James -

    FYI the astronomy community has complained loudly and extensively about NSERC’s conference system (and met with the same “Everybody loves it! Stop complaining, it’s you not us”.) Not only did success rates fall precipitously, the monetary award amount became quite unpredictable, with some researchers saying they received far more than expected (as opposed to the usual shortfall that is anticipated).

    I wish you luck with your LRP process. While our’s was being written the government commissioned its own independent review of Canadian astronomy, undercutting the impact of the LRP significantly. This year we have received information that the CSA budget that funds space astronomy is to be cut by 60% and that no new investment in ground-based astronomy is likely until budgets are balanced. The writing may well be on the wall for a number of major projects were are involved in the planning of.

    Like your community, some of us anticipate a number of successful young researchers will likely leave Canada.

    Rob Thacker, (Vice Chair Astronomy LRP)

  4. Rob, Thank you for taking the time to reply to this post. Your summary of the anomalous outcomes of the conference model system for astronomy is consistent with what we’ve experienced in math/stats. Your report about the astronomy LRP solidifies concerns I have about whether the math/stats LRP will actually influence NSERC policy. I am disappointed to hear about troubles with research funding for astronomy in Canada.

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