Today I had lunch with the president of NSERC and a table full of illustrious researchers and administrators from McGill. NSERC is the federal body that funds most academic scientific and engineering research in Canada. Suzanne Fortier began as president of NSERC at the start of 2005 and she had the good grace to visit McGill. give a talk and meet with various people.
She asked us to provide comments of NSERC funding policies and make suggestions for improvement.
Many of the researchers simultaneously praised NSERC's mechanisms for providing funding, but also lamented the the lack of sufficient funds in the Canadian system. Specifically in comparison with other G8 countries, the sizes of the grants available and the diversity of funding opportunities in Canada is too small. This is a particular problem is areas like robotics, where the core infrastructure costs are not moderated lower costs found in Canada (for example the very low cost of tuition doesn't help pay for equipment or off-campus testing). Fortier was very sympathetic regarding the problems faced by researchers in Canada, and was surprising open to suggestions and enthiastic about hearing about our particular research interests.
A hot topic of conversation was the "success rate" of NSERC (National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada) applicants. At NSERC, as opposed to the NSF (National Science Foundation) in the United States, a very large fraction of grant applications get at least some funding. This allows more people to get research money but, since budgets are fixed, means that the total amount per funding project is smaller. An open question is whether NSERC should be more selective and in so doing, it would have more money for those whom is actually chooses to fund. This would be a controversial policy, but one which I think would be good so long as it doesn't go too far. I am aware of a few projects that NSERC funds that don't really lead to significant publications that anybody would read, and hence the funds are not very productive. On the other hand, funding some of these smaller projects has some pedagogical value, but that probably isn't the job of NSERC.