In Canada, most computer science professors seek funding with NSERC, the main Canadian funding agency for science and engineering. It is more or less the equivalent of the American NSF. The core NSERC program is called “discovery” and it funds 5-year research programs. So, roughly speaking, currently funded professors apply for funding about once every 5 years. Once funded, you do not have to pursue the program you proposed: we recognize that you cannot be expected to stupidly stay on the same course for five years in a fast moving field.
Applicants get a rating regarding the excellence of the researcher, the merit of their proposal and on how well they are training students. It is an all-around evaluation. It is quite stressful.
Not all professors are funded or seek funding. However, it is common for computer science departments to expect their new faculty to seek funding. At many places, getting funding is a necessary condition to get tenure. I would expect it to be the case at all top departments. In effect, the NSERC discovery program act as a Canada-wide peer review process.
The grants are modest: from about 20k$ a year to 100k$. Very few people get 100k$ a year, you basically have to be a Turing award recipient. So it is not a lot of money compared to what American professors get. In most cases, all the money goes to students. Professors cannot pay themselves. So getting a grant does not increase your salary.
In computer science, applications go to a committee made of between 40 to 50 people. Most are from Canadian universities, but there are some people from industry and from other countries. Each application is reviewed by a team of five committee member, supervised by a chair (who is also a member of the committee) as well as at least one program officer. There are also external reviews which are taken seriously, but are just one element among many. The applicants must provide samples of their research; they committee members browse and discuss these papers. And there is a 5-page proposal describing the science that the applicant wants to pursue.
I just finished a term as co-president of the committee. It is a lot of work. I could probably have written five more papers these last three years without this service responsibility. Let me add that it is unpaid.
Here are my take-away from the experience:
- We often hear that science is all about publishing lots and lots of papers. That is definitively not true. Once you put a bunch of professional computer scientists in a room and you tell them to judge someone… they quickly dismiss sheer volume. They seek quality. They seek actual science. They also tend to go with proxies, as in “they published in the best venue”. Yet, even there, it is not so much the volume that matters as the fact that specific journals and conferences are especially selective. Committee members are eager for explanations as to why the research is great; it is often the applicants themselves who are not forthcoming about details. If you wrote about a breakthrough in an online note or presented it at a local workshop, your peers will be happy to consider it, though you have a bit more explaining to do than if it appeared in a prestigious venue. And it is definitively possible to get the highest ratings without a pursuit of prestigious venues.
- We take services to the community and to society very seriously. It is not all about papers.
- I don’t think bibliometrics like citations get discussed much at all: again, it is not about numbers. Being highly cited can be good, but it is not the end game.
- It is surprising how even the most experienced researchers sometimes cannot describe competently a research proposal. Sometimes there are goals, but no means to achieve them. Sometimes the objectives are all over the map and incoherent. People will mix and match ideas in the most absurd manner.
- The committee is quite open to new and bold ideas. In fact, it rewards bold ideas if they are presented in a competent manner.
- Years after years, I have seen “old ideas” being praised when put into a solid program. Not everything good has to be about bitcoins and deep learning. That is, it is not required that you work on fashionable ideas. The committee has a lot of tolerance for unfashionable ideas.
- People who try to “pad” their resume to look impressive take risks. Committee members get annoyed very quickly at people gaming the system.
- Everyone gets assessed on the same grid. It does not matter whether you are at the best or worst university. It does not matter if you are 20 years old or 70 years old. Evidently, it does not matter whether you are man or not. So it is a system that is hard on younger, less experienced professors. It is also hard for people from small institutions. If you are both inexperienced and from a small institution, it is especially difficult. The counterpart is that if you do well while being at a small institution, you should be especially proud of yourself.
- Unfortunately, as with every year, many professors will get bad news. They will have failed to get funding. This may mean that they will soon lose their job. Some people are just bad at what they do or they have bad ideas: it is a service to tell them loud and clear. But most people who fail to receive funding at not bad. In many cases, the merit of their work was clear. This is not a perfect system, nor can it be. Some people simply have not yet had the means to reach the thresholds set by the grid. Some people do work that just do not fit well with the grid. This makes me sad and slightly depressed, but there is no easy fix. In my department, we specifically do not require that new professors get a discovery grant to receive tenure. We do our own assessment.
- It is definitively not all about politics. I have heard rumours about people from a given school of thought trying to sink people from another school, or people trying to be advocate for their own speciality. I am sure it happens. However, when it is observed, it does get some attention. Nothing is ever perfect, but we don’t let politics take over.
All in all, I feel better about my peers and about computer science after this experience at NSERC. I am generally very concerned about quality in research. There is a lot of junk out there. Yet there is also a lot of good people try to do good work. My expectation is that the Canadian system is probably one of the best in the world because it puts quality and good science first.