March 5th, 2009
This post may seem like academic inside baseball, but after reading it, I hope you’ll see that the dilemmas are real.
The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council just announced that it is eliminating release time stipends for its grants. Release time stipends, given only to the top half-dozen or so applications in any competition, provide a teaching reduction of a one-semester course for three years. I assume the reason SSHRC has abolished them is that it is trying to stretch its resources to fund a few more proposals. Doing away with the release time supplement will slow the progress of the researchers who submitted the best proposals, but will enable SSHRC to go a bit farther down the list of ranked proposals.
I declare a personal interest here. My most recent SSHRC proposal, to support the book on public sector narrative that I referred to in last week’s post, was ranked 7th out of 142 applications and I received release time. In my next application, I will not be able to ask for release time. Putting on what moral philosopher John Rawls called “the veil of ignorance” and ignoring their own situations, most academics would likely agree that it is preferable to expand the number of grants, even if those that are most highly ranked receive fewer resources.
Now consider a second case. Each year, the Canada Council’s Killam program gives five prizes of $100,000 for distinguished career contributions in health sciences, natural sciences, engineering, humanities, and social science. It also awards a handful of research fellowships that give the fellows release time from all teaching and administrative responsibilities for two years. The fellow’s university receives $70,000 per year to hire a replacement instructor.
The Killam Program is funded from an endowment that, like every other endowment I know of, sustained major losses last year. The program so far has left the $100,000 prizes untouched and reduced the number of fellows to approximately five.
Is that the best use of the Killam program’s endowment? Both the prizes and the fellowships reward Canada’s best researchers, but the prizes look back to career achievement in the past, while the fellowships look forward to new research projects. If, for instance, the five prizes were reduced from $100,000 to $30,000, each would free up $70,000, and two or three additional fellowships could be funded.
If scholars in this case were asked to put on the veil of ignorance what would they decide: to deal with the diminished income from the endowment by reducing the number of fellowships or by reducing the value of the prizes? My guess is that most would say – as in the previous case – that it is better to have more scholarship, and would vote to reduce the prizes and fund more fellowships.
These are tough, uncomfortable, choices. SSHRC chose to spread its limited resources more widely. Will the Killam Program do likewise?