The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) has replaced its old "standard research grants" with new "insight grants."
Both the old and new grants fund "investigator framed" research - that is, ideas and topics generated by researchers themselves. (SSHRC has other programs that target specific research areas, for example, the automotive industry)
Investigator framed research works best when researchers know more than politicians or bureaucrats about where there are opportunities for knowledge gains, and what the emerging issues that will matter in the future are.
The disadvantage of investigator framed research is that some topics might end up being under-researched (see here and here). Canada-specific topics that are hard to publish in top-tier international journals. Topics that require detailed knowledge of Canadian policies or institutions. Topics with few fringe benefits attached. (Circumpolar conferences are rarely held in Rio.)
The new insight grant program aims to align investigator framed research with Canada's policy needs by identifying "priority research areas."
There is a section on the insight grant application form that looks like this:
It's a bit like affirmative action (or employment equity). Tick the box if you are a member of a designated group - and then you will receive funding priority. Or will you?
The SSHRC website describes how the priority areas factor into the funding decision in its FAQs section:
Do proposals linked to a priority area have an increased chance of receiving funding?
Yes. SSHRC will continue to fund the highest quality applications to each of its funding opportunities, across all eligible disciplines and areas of research, including research falling within the priority areas. In addition, SSHRC management may choose to dedicate additional funds to support meritorious proposals falling within one of the priority areas.
So, as I understand it (and I may be wrong) there will be two rounds of research funding. In the first round, the best, say, 25 percent of applicants will be funded, regardless of research area. In the next round, only applicants in the priority research areas will be considered, and the best, say, 10 percent of applicants within the priority areas will receive funding.
How this affects applicants' incentives depends upon a number of things.
The first is the amount of money in each pool: more funds for priority research areas create stronger incentives to apply. In fact, SSHRC has not made any definite funding commitments. Official statements say only that SSHRC may choose to dedicate additional funds to priority research areas.
The second is applicants' knowledge of their ranking relative to other applicants. Suppose that you are confident that you are within the top 10 percent of SSHRC applicants. Then you can be pretty sure that you will receive funding regardless. So there is no incentive to change or tweak your research area in order to improve your chances of funding.
Do applicants, in fact, know how they rank relative to others? In economics, historically, they have done. The economics standard research grants were awarded largely on the basis of an applicant's track record, that is, publication history. Count publications in top-tier and good mid-level journals - your own and other people's - and you can work out your odds of success.
When applicants know where they rank, the people who have the most incentive to switch to priority research areas are marginal applicants - people who have a relatively low chance of getting funded in the first, quality-only, round, but a good chance of getting funded in the second, priority-area, round. The top applicants have no incentive to switch; they will be funded anyways.
(Indeed, this could, conceivably, lead to a stigmatization of the priority areas: "You only got funded because you're doing research on the digital economy." The stigmatizing effect of affirmative action is one reason why such programs are sometimes opposed by the very groups that the programs aim to help.)
The new insight grants, however, are not adjudicated in the same way as the old standard research grants. Economics, instead of having its own committee, is grouped together with business, management, and related fields. Ranking the Journal of International Economics against the Journal of International Business Studies is more difficult than comparing two economics journals. This increased uncertainty would increase "top" applicants' incentives to incorporate priority research areas into their funding program, as it increases the odds that a top applicant will find herself in the second round.
A final factor that matters is the cost of switching. For people who do empirical Canadian research anyways, the costs of incorporating one of the priority research areas might be fairly low.
Indeed, that is one of my main concerns with this initiative. It rewards talk: My new research program - Blogging and Canoeing: Heteroskedastic Intersectionalities - will bring the digital economy to Northern Canada, providing opportunities for innovation and leadership within Aboriginal communities, while contributing to the environmental sustainability of Northern development. Will people really change their area of research focus, or will it all end up being just so much window dressing?
Overall, though, this is one kind of affirmative action that some economists, at least, should favour. In 2010-11, 6.2% of SSHRC standard research grant funding went to economists, which is comparable to the 5.5% going to political science and 5.9% going to literature and modern languages. It is far less, however, than the 12.4% share going to education and 11% going to management and business. If economists have a comparative advantage in the priority research areas, that could be used to increase our funding share.
So now it's time to get back to that Blogging and Canoeing insight grant proposal...