Responding to the SSHRC’s New Program Architecture
March 22, 2010
Keith Banting, President
In early March, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) posted a “briefing” document about proposed sweeping changes to its research grant programmes and set a March 31st deadline for comments. Virtually everyone who will be applying for SSHRC grants from 2011 on will be affected. If the proposed changes are adopted at the June meeting of the Council, some revised grant programmes will be issuing call for proposals as early as the summer and fall of 2010.
We encourage members of the Canadian Political Science Association to read the briefing document and to send comments to SSHRC. In so doing, members should attempt to be constructive and to offer alternatives to aspects of the proposals with which they disagree or find problematic.
This document is designed to assist our members in thinking about the proposals. We provide an initial reaction and a set of questions that we feel need to be addressed.
According to the briefing document, SSHRC is attempting through these changes to create a simpler and more flexible suite of programmes that fund individual and team research across all disciplines. The new ‘architecture’ is designed to create new opportunities and options, for example through five-year research grants, establishing medium-size grants ($250-500K), to foster research development and collaborative research. Some of these proposed changes are responses to long-standing recommendations from the research community.
While the overall direction of the changes is clear, many important detailed issues are unclear. Accordingly, there is reason for members of the Canadian political science community to ask pointed questions about the practical implications of the operational procedures that will come into play with the changes. Some of the areas of concern that have been identified as requiring attention and clarification before the changes are finalized are set out below.
The briefing document is silent on perhaps the most fundamental issue relating to the revised grant programmes – the allocation of funds to the various grant streams and programmes. Without a clear sense of funding levels for the different programme envelopes, it is difficult to assess the impact of the proposed changes, especially over the long term. However, we are especially concerned that the cumulative effect of the various changes will be that funding for curiosity-driven research programmes involving one or two researchers may be particularly vulnerable; success rates for such projects are already low and should not be permitted to decline further.
Among the issues warranting attention are the following:
1) Under the previous regime, a researcher could hold a Standard Research Grant and a grant from another programme (such as a Strategic Grant). With the consolidation of grant programmes under the proposed regime and with a Research Grant lasting three to five years, will it be much more difficult for researchers to take a leading role in more than one project?
2) The division between new and established scholars, and the different weighting of criteria in the evaluation of their Research Grant applications, is to be eliminated. A separate envelope is to be introduced for new scholars in the Research Development Grant programme. How will this change affect both groups of scholars?
3) The weighting of applicant’s ‘track record’ (now labelled ‘capability’) has been sharply reduced from 60 per cent for established scholars in the Standard Research Grant competition to 20 per cent in the Research Grant competition, to 10 per cent in Research Development Grants and to 30 per cent in other programmes. This is below the weighting employed by NSERC for its flagship grant programmes. What are the implications of this dramatic downgrading of the applicant’s record of achievement?
4) Research Development Grant and Partnership Development Grant applications will not be assessed by external reviewers. The significantly enhanced scale of these grants means that Partnership Development Grants of up to $500K will be awarded without external assessments. Both Research Development Grants and Partnership Development Grants will be adjudicated by very broad multidisciplinary committees. How will this process work and what will be the implications?
5) The adjudication committees for some grants will be composed of “scholars from the research community and experts from other sectors”. What sort of “experts” are envisaged? Why are they to be adjudication committee members rather than external assessors?
6) Partnership Grants will require a minimum of 50 per cent of the budget from cash and in-kind contributions from partners. Will this create a significant barrier to researchers whose intended partners are government agencies, NGOs or other third-sector institutions with limited resources? How broadly will “in-kind” contributions be defined? Will the adjudication process favour cash over in-kind contributions, as said to be the case for other granting councils?
7) The Research Grant criteria will include “leveraging of cash or in-kind support from the host institution and/or from partners, where appropriate”. Will Research Grant applicants without partners be disadvantaged? What is to protect curiosity-based research from being squeezed out over time?
8) The open Standard Research Grant stream and the Strategic Grants stream are to be integrated, and SSHRC’s thematic priorities (such as Aboriginal research and business innovation) considered in the assessment process. Will applications not addressing thematic priorities be disadvantaged?
9) Some grant programmes will have no upper funding limit. Without major funding infusions, how will this effect the funding available and the success rates for applications to various grant streams?
10) For Research Grants, two new interdiscipinary adjudication committees are proposed: “Research Creation, New Media” and “Aboriginal research, Northern Studies”. Do political scientists proposing research on Aboriginal self-government want linguists, economists and musicologists assessing their applications (any more than musicologists, economists and linguists want political scientists assessing theirs)?
11) The new proposed date for submission of Research Grant applications is September 15th. This seems problematic, given that the first two weeks of September are the busiest and most stressful of the year.
We urge CPSA members to review the SSHRC document (available at http://sshrc.ca/site/whatsnew-quoi_neuf/Program_Architecture_Consultation_e.pdf) carefully with these concerns in mind and to bring their views to SSHRC’s attention (PA-project @ sshrc-crsh.gc.ca). In order to help the CPSA represent our members’ interests, both in the period when responses are being accepted, and subsequently as the changes are implemented, we request that CPSA be copied on responses to SSHRC. They may be sent to Sally Rutherford (sally_rutherford @ cpsa-acsp.ca).