Most NSERC grants in neuroscience related fields are evaluated by either the Psychology committee or the Physiology Grant Selection Committees (GSC). Each of these committees consists of about a dozen scientists. The committees meet once a year in Ottawa (in February) for 4-5 days. During this time about 150 grant applications will be discussed at the rate of about 35 applications per day.

Here is information about what happens in the NSERC Psychology GSC:

Applicants are required to send an abstract of their research proposal (Form 180) to NSERC by mid-August. This form contains a paragraph summary of the research you plan to outline in your application and the names of 5 possible external reviewers of your grant. Form 180 also includes a list of publications in the last 6 years. In September each application for a research grant is assigned to two members of the committee who serve as internal reviewers. Both reviewers are responsible for the evaluation of the application, but the first reviewer has the additional task of selecting the external reviewers. These are selected based on the ones suggested by the applicant as well as the internal reviewer’s knowledge of the field and NSERC’s referee bank.

The entire set of grant applications is delivered to each committee member around mid-December. At this time the committee members start reviewing the grants in preparation for the competition week in February. It is extremely important to remember that the members of the committee will be evaluating applications on topics that they may not be terribly familiar with – this is because there are about 150 applicants per year and only about a dozen committee members. Consequently, you should write your grant application for a non-expert. This doesn’t mean that you need to dumb it down, but rather that it is clear and relatively free of jargon.

External reviews are also sent to the internal reviewers to help them in their assessment of the grant applications. Unfortunately, a good number of the selected external reviewers fail to send in their reviews – this is another reason for you to write your application for the non-expert. In addition, of the external reviews received, a number are of limited usefulness because they are not contingent on the quality of the application.

The evaluation of a grant application is based on 4 criteria:

1. The quality of the research grant proposal
2. Excellence of the applicant
3. The need for funds
4. Contribution to the training of highly qualified personnel

1.The quality of the research grant proposal - The proposed research must be programmatic. It must include long-term and short-term objectives and be guided by a particular theoretical framework or an explicit set of ideas or hypotheses. Moreover, it must have sufficient substance. For instance it must include more than a single experiment or computer simulation. The research program must be aimed at an understanding of basic processes (e.g., neurophysiological, perceptual, cognitive) and behaviour. Within the limited space available, applicants must provide some evidence that they have mastered the basic issues and current state of knowledge in their field. Some of this knowledge may be demonstrated in already published papers or preprints accompanying the application. Applicants must also indicate what they plan on doing over the term of the grant and how they are planning on doing it. The research plan must be broken down into a manageable set of stages (e.g., experiments, simulations), which are to be described in detail sufficient to allow evaluation. (Some of the research methods may be described in already published papers or in the papers accompanying the application.)

2. Excellence of the applicant - The applicant’s "track record" is evaluated and includes not only the publication record over the past 6 years but also the quality of the publications, their impact on the field, contributions to conferences and colloquium series, special awards, and training of highly qualified personnel among other things.

3.The need for funds - It is acknowledged that different types of research may require different levels of funding to be carried out successfully. For instance, computer simulation is generally less costly than traditional empirical work (although equipment may be costly), and experimentation with humans is generally less expensive than experimentation with other animals.

4.Contribution to the training of highly qualified personnel - This is one of NSERC’s stated goals. Although the supervision of graduate students and postdocs is an obvious way of meeting this goal, GSC members take into account that at smaller schools and in some less popular research areas, applicants do not have the opportunity to engage in such supervision. In all cases other types of contribution to the training of personnel are also considered, such as the supervision of undergraduate projects and summer NSERC students, the training of research assistants, recruiting of high school students to science programmes, etc.

Here is what happens during competition week:

On each day the committee rates between 30- 40 applications. That means that only 10-15 minutes is spent on your application. Consequently, the excellence of your work must be clear.

Each application is discussed in turn. The NSERC Program Officer first indicates the current level of support (if any), the recommended rating and finding level from the first GSC reviewer, and the recommendations of the second GSC reviewer. The first reviewer then summarizes the case for the benefit of the whole committee, with the level of detail dependent on the discrepancy between the two reviewers and between the recommended finding level and the current finding level. The second reviewer restricts comments to points omitted by the first reviewer and any points with which he or she disagrees. Approval of ratings and of finding recommendations is established by consensus.

Here are some points to remember:

You must demonstrate a theoretical orientation, knowledge of the literature, research productivity, and "grantsmanship.

Your research should be programmatic – ask yourself where will the field stand if the experiments work; where will the field be if the experiments do not work; will the research lead to a significant advance in our understanding of the basic psychological/physiological processes.

Clear hypotheses are needed - not just a fishing expedition. Your proposal should be focussed and be readable. It must not be only "clean-up" or replication research.

Keith Humphrey
Department of Psychology
University of Western Ontario