Lab Canada

Bias in Canada’s science research funding assessed in study

Peterborough, ON – Dr. Dennis Murray, a biology professor and Canada research chair in integrative wildlife conservation at Trent University, has spearheaded a new study, published June 10 in Plos One, that assesses the causes of weak science funding among small universities in Canada and highlights how bias facing researchers from small universities affects grant proposal success rates from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada’s (NSERC) Discovery Grants program.

The study shows that researchers from smaller institutions were substantially less successful in receiving Discovery Grant support than their counterparts at larger schools. Discovery Grants are the mainstay of university research in the sciences, and in recent years grant proposal success for researchers at small universities has undergone steady decline.

The study involved senior researchers from seven Canadian universities, most of whom previously served on Discovery Grant evaluation committees.

“The low funding success among researchers from small schools is an important finding, but on its own doesn’t necessarily mean that the system is rigged,” said Professor Murray. “Lower success among researchers from small institutions could be due to weaker proposals rather than biased evaluations, and we sought to determine which process was most important.”

By showing that low funding success occurred both among established researchers, whose research productivity may be a product of their institutional environment, and early career researchers, whose productivity should reflect their success as graduate students and post-doctoral fellows at other institutions, the study determined that applicants from small schools are subject to evaluation bias.

“Across all evaluation metrics, applicants from small universities are lower ranked, regardless of whether their affiliation with a small school is recent or longstanding,” added Dr. Doug Morris, professor and research chair in Northern Studies at Lakehead University, who contributed to the paper.

The study finds that, if left unabated, this bias will decimate science funding at small universities, even in the span of a decade.

NSERC is aware of these issues and recently adopted corrective measures to provide further advantages to applicants from small universities, but the study shows that these policies will not successfully eliminate bias.

“Applying band-aid solutions does not mask the fact that the evaluation process itself needs to be fairer,” said Dr. Hugh MacIsaac, professor and Canada research chair in aquatic invasive species at University of Windsor, another contributor to the paper.

The study recommends that grant evaluation should involve blind review and use standardized measures of performance, which should limit subjective decision-making by grant reviewers. The study also calls on small institutions to improve their support for research and graduate training as a complement to their strong undergraduate teaching commitment. Professor Murray concludes that these reforms are necessary if small universities are to remain competitive in a rapidly-changing research funding landscape that favours institutions with innovative research opportunities and dynamic graduate training programs.