The season of the twitch: playing the grants game

Research costs money. Some things cost a lot – microscopes, thermal cyclers for amplifying DNA, conference travel, flights to the arctic. Some things cost only a little – printer paper, bottles of glycerin, insect nets, forceps (but even these things add up!). We pay to collect data, we pay to process the data, and we often pay to publish our results. There is, of course, also the cost of living (tuition, rent, food, beer, coffee) when you’re a grad student or postdoc and they, after all, are the people who do most of the research. Without grad students and keen undergrads the lab would be a very lonely and unproductive place.

The major funding agency for university science research in Canada is the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC for short) (NSUCK when we’re annoyed at them). NSERC supports research at every stage – undergraduate summer research awards, graduate scholarships for M.Sc. and Ph.D. students, postdoctoral fellowships, and research and equipment grants for professors. And although the money is not what one would call lavish, NSERC still gives good Canadian scientists the opportunity to do science. All sorts of science.

Although there is a wide range of funding programs under NSERC, the ones that affect the greatest number of people are the student scholarships and the Discovery Grants given to individual professors. The application deadlines for these programs are in the autumn. We submit our packages (it’s the university equivalent to writing a letter to Santa Claus – “and a truck, and a Malaise trap, and a centrifuge, and a technician . . .”). Evaluation Groups, aided by external referees, review and rank each application through the winter (not an easy task!) and decisions are transmitted to applicants in the spring.

And this is the time of year when the decisions loom. The emails start to flow out from NSERC to universities in late March and we, the community of present and future scientists, will learn our fate, as it were. Students will find out if they will receive the scholarships that will make it just a little easier for them to become the professors of the future; and professors will learn how much support we will have available to train those students and do our own research. Many of us are in the process of planning our summer research activities, but we don’t yet know how much money we will have available to carry out those activities. It seems a bit backwards, but I suppose it’s the nature of the funding game.

We’ll all know in a couple of weeks. But in the meantime we’ll get more nervous and stressed and we’ll all keep trying to plan our lives even though we’re still missing a few key pieces of the picture. It’s why some of us get just a little more distant every now and then around the Ides of March. It’s the season of the twitch.


About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
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