NSERC Evaluation Group – Ottawa Week

Your ticket to Hollywood, sort of

Have you watched American Idol?  Do you remember the week when the contestants come to Hollywood to sing their heart out for a chance at the top 24?

That is reminiscent of the judging process I am involved with now.


First thing: I am so busy with the judging at NSERC this week, my post will not be long. I hope to post one that is longer and more insightful about my work at NSERC in the coming weeks once the dust settles.

For those of you who don’t know, NSERC is an acronym for Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. NSERC funds pure and applied research in the sciences, mathematics, and engineering. The base-line grant for most researchers in these areas is the Discovery Grant, and I am on the Evaluation Group for that this year (and the next two years). These grants allow Canadian researchers to pursue fundamental, impactful research, and train the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Researchers apply to NSERC for funds, and their grants are evaluated over a lengthy process. External arms-length referees read the proposals and sends comments. Our job on the Evaluation Group (EG… sorry for all the acronyms) is to fold those reports in with our reading of the proposal to make a funding decision.

Returning grant holders apply to renew their Discovery Grant every 5 years. Having just gone through the process in 2015, writing a winning proposal can be demanding. However, it is ultimately a rewarding experience to summarize on paper the crux of your research program.

Disclaimer: Everything I say can be found on the NSERC website.

Applicants are judged on a grid based on three merit indicators: Excellence of the Researcher (which judges the record and impact of the applicants), Merit of the Proposal (judges the quality of the proposal), and Training of Highly Qualified Personnel (which judges past and proposed training of students, research assistants, and post-docs). There is also a part on the cost of research.

Here is the grid:


Based on the EG’s scores you receive for the indicators, you enter a bin which is then funded at some prescribed level (or not if the proposal is not funded). The EG has nothing to do with the funds associated with the bins. That is decided by others in NSERC.

The second coldest capital city in the world

The EG members privately read the proposals and referee reports, then meet in Ottawa for a few days in February for group discussions. By the way, below is a snapshot of a typical day in Ottawa in February. Today, there is light snow and it is a balmy -8 C.

Once we finish our meetings here in Ottawa, the NSERC staff communicate funding decisions and anonymized referee reports over the coming weeks and months.

I am really impressed with the hard work and professionalism of the NSERC staff. Working in a Dean’s office with a large staff, I don’t say that lightly. My colleagues on the EG and the group Chairs are also all excellent, fair, and wise.

Anthony Bonato




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