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.

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