What the delay to SSHRC Insight results might mean

The other day this turned up in my Tweetstream

The SSHRC Insight competition is timed such that decisions are made in time to release funds at the beginning of the federal budget year (April 1). Normally, results are communicated to universities at that time, although letters to applicants (which include scores, and feedback from the committee and external assessors) don’t usually appear until sometime in May.

The fact that the decisions are delayed tells me that SSHRC is making changes in this competition budget. This is unsurprising given this sentence in the recent federal budget:

The granting councils will be pursuing operational efficiencies and reallocation of funding from lower-priority programs to generate savings.

I plan to write another post about the broader implications of the budget but here I want to focus on what might happen to the current competition.

Obviously one option would be to decide not to make any of the required savings from the budget for the Insight program. I suspect this is unlikely as it would mean greater savings from other programs. Since the new program architecture has a nice balance between grants to individuals and small teams and larger collaborative projects, and has also instituted a Development Grant program to recognize the particular needs of new scholars and those changing the direction of their research programs, it seems unlikely that they would shift that balance.

This suggests that the budget they are allocating based on the peer adjudication that happened in March is now smaller than was originally envisioned.

There are 2 ways that they can address this sudden contraction:

  • reduce the success rate
  • an across the board cut to project budgets

Neither option is going to be popular.

In the first scenario, those who are funded will be funded at the rate the committee deemed essential to complete the project as proposed (which may be slightly lower than the proposed budget but based on the opinions of your peers as to what you really need). Since success rates have been running in the 30-35% range over the past few years, that would probably see them drop to something close to 25%.

In the second scenario, the success rate would stay the same (about 30%) but those funded would have an arbitrary cut to the budget the peer review committee agreed (see parenthetical comment in previous paragraph). SSHRC did this in the Standard Research Grant competition in 2006 to maintain a success rate closer to 40% in the face of increased numbers of applicants and increases in the requested budgets. It was not popular and led to the decision to reduce the success rate the following year.

Personally, I think the 2nd scenario would be the lesser evil. Having some funding enables you to do more research than you can with no funding. SSHRC states that it funds programs of research which means that while you might have to scale back your program based on the funds awarded you should still be able to make a significant contribution to knowledge even with a reduced budget.

That said, the overall picture is not promising.