Friday, March 20, 2009

On Science Policy: NSERC Changes

There's a number of changes that have occurred as a result of the Conservative government in the recent budget with respect to the way that the various funding councils dole out money.

In particular, I'd like to examine one particular change that is being brought about by NSERC with respect to the PGS award because its a common complaint that I'm hearing from this group or that as an example of the Conservative government's 'strangling' of science in Canada.

Part of the problem with this logic begins with who is to blame for the current changes, which is NSERC and the scientists and administrators who run the program themselves. The Conservative government asked them to identify changes to save money and this change was one of the ones that the scientists themselves identified as a way to save money.

The major problem I have with complaints about this change however is not who is to blame but the lack of serious discussion about if this is a good idea. Many argue that its bad but few justify their rhetoric in any serious way. So let me outline the changes and how they will affect students generally.

In previous years when an undergrad student decided to become a M.Sc student there was strong encouragement for the student to apply for the NSERC PGS award because of the financial freedom that it would give students and professors. Students would have the opportunity to apply twice, once when they were still 4th year undergraduate students, and once when they were in their first year of their graduate studies.

The process to receive one of these scholarships is not simple. Applications are submitted in September or October to the respective departments, so for a 4th year undergraduate they must submit their application before they even know if and where they have been accepted to graduate school. You first must gain the approval of your department and receive a ranking out of all applicants from your department. The second step is the university examines the proposed applicants from all departments and decides on a number to recommend to NSERC to receive funding. The number that the university is allowed to send in is set by NSERC and is based on the number of successful applicants from the previous year. NSERC then examines all the applicants and compares them to applicants from across the country and decides on which to approve.

Here we can see the many hurdles facing a 4th year undergrad as opposed to a 1st year M.Sc student in attaining NSERC PGS funding. As a 4th year student they have less training and research experience than a 1st year M.Sc student but there is no consideration given to that. So a 4th year student who is recommended must be better than good, they must be exceptional. Moreover, there is strong disincentive for universities to recommend a 4th year student over a 1st year M.Sc student since the NSERC PGS funding does not apply to a particular university, but rather follows the student wherever they may go. A 1st year M.Sc student has already decided to attend the university at which he submits his application, but a 4th year student may (and for smaller universities usually) choose to go to a more prestigious university taking that funding away from the university at which they submit their application.

The end result is that most applications from 4th year students are rejected either at the university level or at the NSERC level and that very few obtain NSERC funding for their first year. But rejected applicants do not dispair, because they know that they can apply again the very next year to obtain funding for their second (and usually last) year of M.Sc studies with a greater chance of being successful.

Which brings us to the element that is going to change. In the past students who had successfully won a NSERC PGS from their 4th undergrad year are eligible to renew the scholarship into their second year (or, if a student extends their M.Sc to 3 years they may also get funding if they were a successful applicant in their first M.Sc year). That is no longer to be the case.

As I illustrated, the changes will affect a very small number of students, either those who won the scholarship from their last undergraduate year, or those who extended their M.Sc into 3 years instead of ending after the typical 2 years. Moreover, I am not convinced that it is a good idea to fund students both years anyways as it removes any necessity for the student to complete TA work.

Yes, TA work is hard. But graduate school is more than just attending classes and working in a lab all day. Its building the skills needed for those interested in staying in academia and working towards positions at universities, and some of those skills will be explaining complicated topics to people who aren't experts in that field. Knowing how to communicate effectively and patiently with these people is a must.

Acting as a Teaching Assistant is important both to the department and to the student's personal development. Learning to teach or assist undergraduate students helps graduate students develop the skills needed to explain complicated topics to lay persons. Without these experiences, graduate school becomes all about classes and working in a lab.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Real Purpose of Graduate School

I think I have discovered the real purpose of graduate school. While some may believe that you are attending graduate school to obtain a M.Sc or a Ph.d through the accumulation of knowledge in your particular field I have learned the true purpose.

It is to make you work so hard for so long that you learn to appreciate only having to work 8 hours a day and getting 6 hours of sleep per day. I can't wait to get a 'real' job, I'll work less and get paid more.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Is Morality Obsolete?

Science has come a long way over the last few hundred years. From a nascent field that was almost strangled in its cradle by religious and political forces intent upon maintaining their hegemony over the 'truth' to a point where scientific analysis is sought after in virtually every field and has led to innumerable benefits to humankind.

Advances in the understanding of bacteria helped us understand proper sanitation. The ability to generate and direct radiation has been used to treat patients with cancer. Materials sciences have brought us the computers that you are using to read this post. The continued advancement of science expands our horizons and enables us to live longer and better than those before us.

But science itself has also brought about great damage to society and to individuals. The invention of rifling enabled soldiers to shoot more accurately. The Gatling gun (the precursor of the machine gun) was originally invented by a man who had sought to reduce the number of casualties in war! Scientists as prominent as Einstein himself argued in favour of the development and use of the nuclear bomb as a means for waging (or rather - ending) war. Some early geneticists argued in favour of eugenics and indirectly helped promote ideas of 'racial purity' and 'racial superiority'.

Some might argue that the examples I've given are those where people have 'misused' or 'abused' science. But how can you 'misuse' science? Science is amoral and does not concern itself with what the results of its application are. Physics does not care if its laws are used in a nuclear bomb or a nuclear power plant. Chemistry does not care if its drugs are used to treat an illness or cause a death.

Which is why talk about 'listening to the science' I think misses a key point. Science unbounded by morality or ethics performed grusome experiments on human subjects deemed to be 'inferior'. No one today would argue that such experiments were proper, but scientifically speaking there was nothing objectionable to them and at the time to the scientists they seemed like valid methods of scientific inquiry. The scientific questions were valid, the methodology properly documented and the results validated by repeated experimentation. However, morally they were reprehensible and unforgiveable.

Its great that as a society we've come to respect scientists for their contributions to humankind, but that doesn't mean a blank check should be handed to every scientific inquiry without consideration as to the moral and ethical implications of the research which they do. Research into 'designer DNA', research using fetal stem cells, research on live animals all have ethical and moral considerations that must be examined.

Morality without science is ignorance.
Science without morality is evil.