Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Grant eligibility expiry dates

This only ends up being a problem if you spend a really long time in grad school, but it is something everyone should be aware of. It's tucked away in the fine print, so go hunting for it... It's always a good idea to be fully informed.

Granting agencies impose expiry dates on your eligibility, depending on how long you've been in the post-secondary system. For example, because I spent so many years (many longer than I ever wanted to) in grad school, in my last year of the Ph.D. program I was no longer eligible to apply for NSERC post-doc funding, even if I had been 'excellent' by their misguided standards.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Excited to be a part of AVPA, and some contexualization

Kudos to those who set this in motion, and thanks to Kirsten for setting up the blog.
It was a pleasure to 'represent' the non-student Alberta vert-palaeo community at the first AVPA meeting - this group definitely has a lot of potential, and I'm excited to be part of it!

Many interesting topics came up during the discussions, and there is certainly no shortage of ideas out there. I'm sure everyone will agree that it is to our advantage if all members approach this with professionalism, maturity, and mutual respect.

One thing I will suggest is that the group be focused on keeping our community connected and discussing our respective research at these meetings than to make the meetings a vehicle for 'how to' seminars. This is especially relevant if we want to bring in more non-student members. The one exception was the proposal to have a session on scientific illustration, as this is not something readily available at most institutions but is of great value to us all (especially those of us that lack that natural talent :) ).

Sessions on how to write grants, for example, are available through the institution in which students are registered, and agencies like NSERC will often do an information seminar at the universities prior to the application deadline.

Some words of caution with regards to grant applications; yes, I'm bitter, but with good reason. This is the part where I share some of my 'when I was a student' stories, and some current ones too, to give you an idea of where I'm coming from. Context is an important part of the big picture, and even though our research is often very focused, the big picture should always be kept in mind. As I said at the meeting, fundamentally I'm not 'negative', I'm realistic, and skeptical. "Pessimists are just optimists in full possession of all the facts" (a brilliant statement posted on the door of my second-to-last office in UC Geo, courtesy of Dr. Jon Jones).

My experience has been (and this has been supported by the information presented by various funding institutions in information seminars that I've attended over the years) that you can spend a whole lot of time, energy, and money, with no return. Fundamentally it all comes down to 'eligibility' versus 'competitiveness', and competitiveness is assessed by the agencies' definition of 'excellence'. Agencies like NSERC and AB Ingenuity openly list their 'excellence' criteria on their websites. Unfortunately that definition is extremely narrow and short-sighted. If you've been able to get funding in the past and have published lots, then you stand to be fairly competitive. At the M.Sc. level, part of that definition includes your undergrad grades. And grades are taken into consideration for the Ph.D. grants as well. My beef with this is that your grades do not necessarily reflect your capacity for 'excellence'. As an educator, I KNOW that exams are a terrible way of assessing student comprehension and ability, which means that grades and GPAs may not truly reflect the potential of a person (something I knew as a student as well). But it's a slippery slope. If your grades knock you out of competition early in the game, then the chances of future success with grant applications diminishes greatly. Without funding (not everyone was/is fortunate enough to have supervisors that have the capability of supporting their students if grant applications are unsuccessful), one usually ends up having to work/teach to support both research and life, and as a result of the time limitations, one ends up being less 'productive' and therefore not competitive. Being 'productive' is fairly easy for the 'haves', but very difficult for the 'have nots'.

Recently I attended a seminar given by Guy Levesque, Manager of NSERC Prairies, on building research capacity at Mount Royal College (as we are on the road to becoming a degree-granting institution), in which he outlined NSERC's programs. Some interesting points were raised. MRC is a dedicated undergraduate institution, and will remain so. Therefore most of the faculty carry quite a heavy teaching load, and have less time available to spend on research. Especially if they want any sort of life balance (which should be just as important as 'productivity', if not more important). However, research still gets done. Nonetheless, Guy actually said that "If you're restricted to doing your research after 5 pm, then you're not dedicated to research". That's a load of baloney, and stems from that narrow-minded definition of 'excellence'. If you haven't read the following paper, then I highly recommend it (perhaps it could be a topic for discussion at our next meeting?). Success as assessed by 'impact factor' is the worst thing that has happened to scientific research.

    The mismeasurement of science.
    Current Biology, Volume 17, Issue 15, Pages R583-R585
    P. Lawrence

We all know that LOTS of crap gets published, even in the misguidedly revered journals like Science and Nature. But we dream of publishing in those journals nonetheless, because they can make or break a career because of their 'impact factor'.

I asked Guy about the fundamental catch-22 ('haves' vs. 'have nots' and the measure of 'excellence'), and he glibly talked around the issue without actually addressing my question directly. These guys are smooth talkers... And he did the same thing when asked if NSERC would have a bias based on an applicant's institution. He said no, but soon after made the 'not dedicated to research' comment. Ultimately the point of the seminar was that college faculty could be competitive for the college-level grant programs (which are mostly industrial and geared towards pushing a product to market), but once we become a university, we are really not competitive for that level of grants (like Discovery Grants and such). So most of us concluded that it wouldn't be worth the time and effort to go for NSERC grants when we become a university, because it would be time wasted and better dedicated to doing something more productive (in the true sense of the word). It comes down to a cost vs. benefit analysis...

There are other sources of funding out there, but just as with NSERC etc., 'eligibility' and 'competitiveness' are big factors. Not to mention who reviews your application, and what your area of study is. Basically ust like the situation you face when attempting to publish your work - who reviews your paper makes a huge impact on whether it gets published or not. Peer review is a good thing, in principle, but we all know that UNBIASED peer review is something rare... Good science is often dismissed because of a reviewer's (or editor's) personal preconceptions, biases, agenda, and sometimes downright pettiness (ie. if it's not what they think, then it has to be wrong). A few of us AVPA members have been stung by that one a few times...

In terms of other funding, Petro-Canada, for example, has a Young Innovator's research award ($25000 this year - up $10000 for next year). Mount Royal College, surprisingly enough, is one of the eligible institutions. The catch is that you have to be tenured/tenurable to apply, meaning part-timers/sessionals like me, despite being just as qualified as full-timers, are out of the running before the race even starts. So the college is pushing to enhance its research programs, but basically underutilizes its available expertise because of the job ranking system. Part-timers, apparently, are not guaranteed to stick around for the duration of the research project. Huh? First, most sessionals (at least in my department), have been teaching as sessionals for many years (some up to 7 years). What do you mean we don't stick around? We're not full-timers because there aren't that many full-time positions, not because we don't qualify. And if we got a grant like that, don't you think that would be incentive to stick around, sessional or not? Believe me, leaving the college to go to a bigger institution is not necessarily appealing - why would you give up teaching small classes? My time teaching large classes was one of the worst experiences of my life! And very few university appointments come without some sort of teaching load...

Ironically, a summary of my research plan was submitted to the college's Director of the Institute for Applied Scientific Research. The 'Foundation' sent out a call for project ideas to pitch to potential financial sponsors, which was passed on by the Geology Coordinator (who, thankfully, does not dismiss my research potential because of my 'part-time' status). The Director was intrigued by my research description (don't know if she knew I was a sessional at the time), and has invited me to be the January speaker for the college's Research in Progress Seminar Series... Amazing how a seven bullet-point research summary can be considered to be interesting and have potential. And yet, I can't apply for the Petro-Can award because I'm a 'part-timer' (a fact which I did mention to her), and I'm not 'excellent' by NSERC standards...

Now, admittedly I've had a harder time with all this stuff than most people do, which fundamentally demonstrates my potential for 'excellence'. A point I'm going to make to NSERC Prairies and the college administratorsI'm still in the game, after all. Just think what I could do if I actually had research support!!

The last thing I want to mention is that the 'mismeasurement of science' paper barely made a ripple, which is both pathetic and revealing at the same time. We need to spread the word! I want to make that paper and the book "Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis" (2007, published by University of Toronto Press by two profs from Western) mandatory reading for all potential and current students, faculty, administrators, and the parents of potential students, with discussions to follow. It's prime time for a reality check in academia... Welcome to the 21st Century, people!! And it's up to us younger members of academe to lead the way. Most of the old guard have worn bum-prints with their fat asses into their 'lofty' seats in the old boy's club of the traditional ivory tower, and they won't willingly get out because it's so 'comfy'.

So here's to the AVPA!