Brzustowski's Epiphany?

Tom Brzustowski in 2002 was President of one of Canada's major councils supporting scientific research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. In August of 2002 he attended a workshop on "Major Challenges for Research Funding Agencies" in Switzerland and found "this was one of the most interesting meetings on research funding that I have ever attended" and "wanted to let the NSERC research community know about it."

    His "recollections of main points of agreement or understanding" were presented in the fall issue of NSERC's magazine Contact, which could once be accessed at: http://www.nserc.ca/pubs/contact/v27_n3_e.pdf. The early copies of Contact have been discontinued, but may be at the Internet Archives: http://www.archive.org [The NSERC web coordinator tells me that "we do have back-ups from our previous Web site and I can send you whichever one interests you by email" (DRF 2009).]

    To members of CARRF there was nothing new, indeed Dr. B. seemed to be espousing policies which CARRF (and many others) had been advocating for many years. Some highlights from "Tom's Epiphany" are listed below:

1. "Interdisciplinary research is a good thing."

2. "Diffusion of concepts and methods between disciplines ... was far more important."

3. "Diffusion of ideas among disciplines was a well-established process in the evolution of science, and ... perhaps the best thing the agencies could do was to ensure that their own practices - particularly peer review that was rigidly disciplinary - didn't get in the way. Amen."

4. "Many historical examples were provided of such diffusion leading to the creation of new disciplines."

5. "But they do not reveal any recipe for success." [If we cannot learn from History what can we learn from Tom?]

6. "Supporting research that was far ahead of the leading edge of established knowledge ... was essential for the progress of science, indeed, it may be risky for a funding agency to support too little of it."

7. "Strictly speaking, there could be no peer review of the science before the fact."[Why strictly speaking, Tom?]

8. "The obvious conclusion eventually emerged: identify the excellent researchers through peer review of their record, ... and in the next grant application make them account for what they accomplished with the last grant."

Donald Forsdyke, October 2002

The Marketing Mindset

What Dr. B. does not seem aware of is the corrosive effect of peer review procedures on the process of scientific publication. If you compare scientific papers of 50 years ago with those of today to you will see that scientific papers, and especially papers reviewing the scientific literature, have become marketing devices rather than objective presentations of new findings. Why? Because it is the successful marketers of grant applications, who have survived in the system, that write the papers. The marketing mentality permeates their grant applications and this cannot fail to influence the way they write their scientific papers. 

Donald Forsdyke. September 2004

Tom Brzustowski spreads the "light"!

Geoffrey Hunter, a founding member of CARRF, Reports: 

NSERC President at York University - March 10, 2004

The President of NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) Dr. Thomas Brzustowski was at York University, Toronto, on March 10th 2004. His visit included a public lecture, a social event to honor York Faculty who had maintained NSERC funding throughout its 25-year history, and a meeting with the directors of York's organized research units.

This is mainly a Report on his 1-hour public lecture; his slides are available at:  Brzustowski Slides

Three of his topics are related and relevant to the CARRF  (Canadian Association for Responsible Research Funding) position that NSERC's policy of Selectivity by Peer-Review is counter-productive of the innovations that it purports to promote (mainly through its program of Discovery Grants):

1. The letters which he receives ("about one a month") pointing out that some research that NSERC's peer-reviewers had selected for non-funding, had nevertheless been done successfully;

2. The fact that Canada's trade with countries such as Taiwan continues to be dominated by exports of raw materials and imports of high-tech products (slide 11 and the second paragraph of slide 21);

3. The Swiss-Cheese model of research funding that he learned about, debated and voted upon, at an international conference of research-funding-agency executives held in Switzerland.

1. The "I told you so" letters that he receives ("about one a month") are, of course, specific instances of the failure of NSERC's process of selectivity by peer-review to fund worthwhile research.   NSERC's Grant Selection Committees (GSC) are staffed mainly by NSERC Discovery Grant holders having above-average grants, and while scientific research is supposed to embody objectivity, scientific research is a multi-faceted activity that precludes expertise in more than a very narrow field; the GSCs have a mandate (from NSERC) to "be selective" (i.e. to deliberately recommend some of their applicants for non-funding);  the GSC members are human beings with preferences and predispositions; hence their decisions favour research that they empathize with (e.g. related to their own work); truly innovative proposals are selected for non-funding.  Currently popular lines of investigation (e.g. nano-technology and molecular biology) are favoured; decisions are determined by what is being proposed and who is proposing it; favourable reviews by more expert external reviewers are commonly over-ridden by the assessments of less-expert internal reviewers on the GSC  "under the gun" to select some applications for non-funding.

2. That NSERC has been ostensibly supporting and promoting "excellence" for over 25 years, and yet Canada's trade with countries such as Taiwan is still dominated by exports of raw materials and imports of high-tech products, raises the perception that NSERC policy has failed to create the high-tech industries that are the hallmark of culturally advanced societies, even though it instituted  a program of "Strategic Grants" just a few years after it was formed in 1978.  The Canadian Government recognized this failure in recent years, but instead of NSERC being investigated with a view to changes to its policies and procedures, the government adopted new initiatives, notably the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) which tends to fund capital equipment purchases without the operating money needed to properly utilize the equipment.

       A bureaucratic measure of the overall failure of NSERC is the proliferation of its many programs, each one instituted to meet a perceived need: "discovery" grants, "strategic" grants, grants for female scientists, scholarship and fellowship programs, etc; this proliferation (like the creation of CFI) is fiscally ineffective; it results in double-funding of some research and under-funding of other research.  Such a multiplicity of programs is politically effective (it looks good in annual reports), but in the real world of scientific research it creates overfunding, underfunding and multiplication of bureacratic overhead.

        The social event on March 10th had an unintended significance for CARRF's position; the honorees (about 30 professors) were distinguished by uninterrupted NSERC funding since it was formed in 1978.  That steady funding reflects steady productivity of research papers and graduate students;  prolific productivity of routine results (e.g. ringing the changes on the 92 atoms in the periodic table of the elements) with few (if any) innovative ideas contributing to the advancement of scientific knowledge and understanding.  

        It is fair perception that not all of Canada's professors of Science and Engineering are equally "excellent" in research; the irony is that much NSERC funding goes to grantees who are respectable and  competent  rather than excellent and innovative, while innovative professors are denied the means to develop and realize new ideas.   An indirect effect of NSERC selectivity is that it coerces funded professors to stay within the rut of established paradigms; i.e. "safe science", since being cut-off from NSERC funding is a professional death sentence.  As John Polanyi noted some years ago: "You must give the research horse free-rein if you want it to win the race", yet that profound truth has not yet  penetrated NSERC's psyche; NSERC (to mix metaphors) firmly grabs the horse's tail and tries to wag the horse to make it innovate.

3. The Swiss-Cheese model of research funding is depicted on slide 24 of Brzustowski's presentation, with a textual summary on slide 25:  Brzustowski Slides.  The picture shows 2 bubbles above the mass of the cheese - labeled "K  high risk, lonely" in the region of research marked "unknown".   Brzustowski said that not only is this truly innovative research lonely, but that funding is very hard to obtain for such  "high-risk" research (see also paragraph 2 on slide 27).  The fourth paragraph on page 25 recognizes that peer review of innovative research proposals is practically impossible; it poses the question of how to retain peer review and yet "avoid the resistance of the established paradigm" ?  It calls for "innovation" to reconcile peer-review with innovative research - a desperate plea to reconcile the irreconcilable.  The fourth paragraph of slide 21 is a similar non-sequitur.   

      NSERC's self-contradictory stance in this regard arises because selectivity by peer-review has been the bed-rock of NSERC policy since 1978 - when Gordon McNabb (NSERC's first president) introduced it; the NSERC executive wants to retain it because it is their way of persuading Members of Parliament (most of whom don't understand the nature of research, least of all innovative research) that NSERC is being careful in how it distributes its several hundred million dollar annual budget.  The irony is that this political motivation entrenches a policy that is manifestly counter-productive of the innovations that it ostensibly supports and promotes.  

      In reality peer review is essentially repressive bigotry: there are countless examples from the history of science; e.g. the well known persecutions of Galileo, Bruno and Copernicus - for innovatively promulgating the idea that the Earth orbits the Sun (rather than vice versa) - an idea that is now universally recognized as being correct;  yesterday's innovations are tomorrow's accepted truths; stifling the former precludes realization of the latter.

     The kind of innovative alternatives to NSERC's way of supporting scientific and engineering research in Canadian Universities that Brzustowski calls for on slide 25, have been proposed to NSERC  many years ago; Donald Forsdyke's "Bicameral Review" and my own "Interactive Financing" model (1984).   Yet such well-conceived, innovative proposals based upon the practical logistics of university research, have been brushed aside because they challenge NSERC's established policy of selectively awarding grants based upon peer review, and because they are perceived as a threat to to the NSERC bureaucracy, for not only would these innovative ways of supporting research be much more effective in promoting innovative research (they would "give the horse free-rein"), they would change the style of (and likely reduce the need for) administration within the NSERC bureaucracy.

Geoffrey Hunter, York University, March 2004.

Geoffrey died at age 75 in December 2008

Return to Peer-Review Index

Return to HomePage

Established circa 2002 and last edited 19 Sep 2010 by D.R.Forsdyke