As we communicated previously, NSERC is reviewing the structure and some elements of the operations of the Grant Selection Committees (GSCs) that award Discovery Grants. One of the key motivations for this review is to ensure that NSERC’s peer review structure remains in line with the current research environment and can adapt to new and emerging areas. Although there is much work yet to be done, this is a brief report on where we are now, and what we still need to do.
Last summer’s Web-based survey (the results of which will be published at the completion of the review exercise) as well as written submissions from Deans, Presidents of scientific societies, Chairs of the Grants Selection Committees and others have provided a wealth of information. In general terms, we found that the large majority of respondents were quite happy with the current system; however, a significant minority – approximately 20 per cent – reported that the current structure is not in line with today’s research environment.
Based on this input, the GSC Review Advisory Committee has concluded that the GSC Structure is in need of some adjustment and updating, however attention must be paid to preserving the strength and credibility of the current peer review system.
The review produced a draft set of recommendations presented to the Committee on Grants and Scholarships in November. A key recommendation is a greatly expanded use of what NSERC refers to as the “conference model”. This approach has proven quite successful within the Evolution and Ecology GSC and it is being expanded to three more GSCs. The version envisaged by the Advisory Committee would see larger panels, each with a number of subcommittees. Each member of the panel would serve on several subcommittees, depending on the specialized expertise they bring to the various subject areas treated by these subcommittees. In addition, members could serve on the subcommittees of other panels when their expertise is needed.
Before the Advisory Committee and NSERC considers this new approach, more work needs to be done. As the next step, NSERC staff is developing a comprehensive model of how such a system might be implemented, including a detailed proposal on the distribution of research subjects, based on the feedback received. Also, as competition sessions under the conference model are inherently more challenging to organize and manage, we will need to obtain professional expertise to help optimize the logistical aspects of the sessions.
In mid-March 2008, we will convene several focus groups composed of scientists and engineers to fine tune and test this new model. Among those invited will be a number of former GSC Chairs and Members because of their intimate knowledge of operations of the current system. The focus groups will be asked to comment on one or two conference scenarios and whether it will provide competent assessment for established as well as new and emerging areas and inter-disciplinary research.
There are several other recommendations dealing with the GSC operations, for example, improving the refereeing process and clarifying selection criteria. We will be discussing these recommendations widely with the community, through scientific societies and with groups of deans and department heads beginning in the spring.
To allow time for the completion of these discussions, we expect to present final recommendations on the Structure and the implementation plan to our Committee on Grants and Scholarships (COGS) at its November 2008 meeting. Implementation could begin, at least in part, during the 2009-2010 competition.
Finally, most of you are aware that NSERC has convened a blue ribbon international committee to study and make recommendations about the relationship between research excellence and the success rates in the Discovery Grants program. This committee held its first meeting in October and will meet again in February to formulate its recommendations to Council.
Isabelle Blain, Vice-President, Research Grants and Scholarships, NSERC