Skip to main content

Don Estep Talks About NSERC’s $5.75 Million Grant to CANSSI

By , In , In News

On June 23, 2022, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) announced a grant of $1.15 million per year for five years to CANSSI under its Discovery Institutes Support grants program. In a recent interview, CANSSI director Don Estep talked about CANSSI’s structure and role and the impact and opportunities arising from the new funding.

Can you tell us a bit about CANSSI and what it does?

Don: The Canadian Statistical Sciences Institute supports the development of collaborative research and the training of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in statistical sciences in order to tackle emerging research challenges. The statistical sciences encompass actuarial science, biostatistics, data science, and statistics. CANSSI is supported by the Discovery Institutes Support (DIS) program of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Simon Fraser University, auxiliary funding obtained by faculty supported in CANSSI programs, and institute membership fees. Additionally, the University of Toronto, University of Manitoba, Dalhousie University and Concordia University support CANSSI Regional Centres.

Part of CANSSI operations is outward facing. The ever-increasing complexity and scope of modern data leads to a seemingly insatiable demand for statistical collaborations from other disciplines. In response, CANSSI develops and operates programs that support the pursuit of cutting-edge collaborative research involving statistical sciences along with the communication and application of the results to science, engineering, and society. A key point is that CANSSI support enables statistical scientists to lead multidisciplinary collaborations. That leadership encourages the inclusion of statistical scientists as core members of interdisciplinary teams leading to genuine collaboration and co-creation of scientific discovery across disciplines. In turn, this leads to better science and engineering, and better outcomes for society.

Another part of CANSSI programs is focused on developing and strengthening the community of Canadian statistical scientists. Canadian statistical scientists are scattered across a heterogeneous mixture of institutions spread over a large geography and an array of departments, centres, and institutes within those institutions. CANSSI programs encourage and support collaborations that span that range. An important aspect of this dimension is CANSSI’s commitment to improving accessibility, equity, diversity, and inclusion in the Canadian statistical sciences community as the inherent foundation for pursuing excellence and innovation in research and training.

CANSSI programs have helped to invigorate research in statistical science across Canada and have changed the view of the role of statistics in scientific research. CANSSI has created excitement and enthusiasm for new opportunities and has opened floodgates for new ideas around statistical outreach. Consequently, CANSSI has grown to occupy an essential and central role in research and training of students and postdoctoral fellows while the research developed in its programs has impact that has transcended statistics to reach many disciplines and even Canadian society itself. The originality, creativity, and success of its programs make CANSSI a world leader in developing and operating programs that support statistical sciences research and training.

How significant is this new funding from NSERC?

Don: This investment in the Canadian statistical sciences community by NSERC is very significant. Collaborative and interdisciplinary research are “high friction” activities. They are the only feasible approach to tackle complex problems and lead to significant research outcomes. Yet they take significant additional resources and time—time is needed to communicate and gain understanding and support is needed to gain that time and help communication. That kind of activity cannot be sustainably undertaken by individual research support, which gauges success by the achievements of the individual. NSERC’s grant enables CANSSI to support researchers to overcome the hurdles involved with collaborative and interdisciplinary research and to undertake the communication of statistics research to other disciplines. It is a “force multiplier” that enables the Canadian statistical sciences community to be more successful and impactful than can be achieved by individual efforts alone.

The NSERC award to CANSSI is also recognition that statistical sciences are distinct from mathematical sciences and thus statistical sciences deserves its own institute within the NSERC institute program. It was a long road involving the hard work of many people to make that case successfully, and the NSERC award establishing CANSSI as the equal of the other institutes is a very significant result for Canadian statistical sciences.

What factors do you think led NSERC to make such a major commitment to CANSSI?

Don: The competition for the DIS program was intense. Applications to the program had to address 26 distinct issues divided among six areas addressing scope and added value of institute programs; accessibility of support; merit and impact of outcomes; fostering partnerships and outreach; and operational and fiscal competence. The review panel followed the written applications with questions seeking additional information, often of the form “Did you try X, and if not, why not?” Based on the feedback we received, I would guess that critical factors included:

  • An appreciation among the panelists (all prominent researchers) for CANSSI’s focus on programs that support meaningful collaborative research
  • The strong orientation of CANSSI programs towards significant value added over what can be achieved by individual research support and effort
  • The innovative nature of CANSSI programs and CANSSI’s ruthlessly experimental approach to developing successful programs in which CANSSI rigorously self-evaluates activities, evolves them for improvement, and retires ideas that are not sufficiently successful
  • The truly outstanding success of researchers, students, and postdoctoral fellows supported in CANSSI programs as measured by research outcomes and impact in statistical sciences, in other research disciplines, and in Canadian society
  • CANSSI’s past record on issues related to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI), and the proposed comprehensive CANSSI EDI program that is focused on tackling challenges in this area with substantive, innovative activities
  • The strongly grassroots nature of CANSSI operations, which enables the Canadian statistical sciences community to steer the direction of CANSSI programs towards the needs of the community

What will this funding make possible over the next few years?

Don: The NSERC funding will enable CANSSI to develop and operate a five-year program that will support the Canadian statistical community in a variety of ways:

  • Collaborative Research Teams (CRT) Program
    • Tackles a focused research question requiring a collaborative team of researchers, postdocs, and students working in a three-year project
    • Pursues the development of new fundamental statistics research in the context of an interdisciplinary project
    • Support used largely for students and postdocs with two new CRT projects per year
  • CANSSI Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellowships (CDPF) Program
    • Two-year comprehensive postdoctoral experience with co-advisors at two universities
    • Offers a substantial research project in statistical sciences, an immersive interdisciplinary experience, experiential teaching and communication training, and strong mentoring and career development opportunities
    • Provides a competitive salary with three new CDPF appointments per year
  • Graduate Student Enrichment Scholarships (GSES) Program
    • Aimed at expanding knowledge and skill sets, providing exposure to new areas of research, providing experience in co-discovery, and creating and strengthening research networks
    • Supplements traditional graduate student training in various ways
    • Provides a combination of stipend and travel support, building to 25–30 scholarships per year
  • Research for Social Good (RSG) Program
    • Supports statistical scientists who can provide critical research support on rapidly emerging problems important to society, with emphasis on equity, diversity, and inclusion issues
    • Focuses on applied research that has strong potential to have a direct and immediate impact that can be realized over a period of a few months
    • Supports costs for students, postdocs, and data acquisition with three to five projects per year
  • National Program on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (CANSSI EDI)
    • Supports CANSSI’s commitment to accessibility, equity, diversity, and inclusion as the foundation for pursuing excellence and innovation in research and training
    • Provides an annual program of seminars, town hall discussions, showcase events, and other events as well as training curriculum on EDI issues
    • Offers dynamic programming that changes from year to year
  • General scientific program and infrastructure support
    • Distinguished Visitor Program, Distinguished Lecture Series in Statistics, National Seminar, partial support for workshops, conferences, datathons, and summer training programs
    • Supports events, communications, web pages

This comprehensive suite of flagship programs provides entry points into CANSSI programs for people at all stages of careers and in diverse employment circumstances.

 The funding will also enable CANSSI to complete the establishment of five Regional Centres (Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, Prairies, and Rockies). The Regional Centres have the mission of organizing regional consensus regarding operations, providing a structure for more effective regional direction of national resources, and empowering the regional community to attract provincial support. The growth of the Regional Centres will transform how CANSSI supports the research and training efforts of our community because it enables CANSSI to deploy national resources in ways that are tuned to the needs and opportunities in different parts of Canada. It means that CANSSI will be a much more complex and comprehensive operation in five years.

But the work does not stop at the planned programs. CANSSI will be continuing to develop and establish new programs over the next five years as new challenges and opportunities develop. That entrepreneurial approach is supported and even expected under the DIS program.

Collaboration seems to be central to CANSSI’s approach. Why is that so important, and what does it look like?

Don: Collaborative science is important because the world is a complicated place. A popular picture of a mathematician or statistician is someone sitting alone in a room looking at some scribbles, which is accurate in some cases of narrowly defined research problems. But research that originates in real-world problems requires a team of people from different disciplines, and within disciplines like statistical sciences, people with different expertise and knowledge. But collaborative research takes hard work and practice – it is not automatically successful. Collaborative research is “high friction”, requiring extra effort to overcome barriers introduced by our own human inclinations and systems that lean towards favoring on individual effort and success. It also takes practice and time to communicate across gulfs of knowledge and experience. Sometimes simple geography raises difficulties – the Canadian statistical sciences community is sparsely distributed across a wide range of distance and institution, which makes simply meeting to collaborate into a hurdle.

There have been many attempts to devise ways to foster and support collaboration. For example, the traditional academic approach is short-time interactions at workshops and conferences. But the traditional approaches have an admittedly spotty record – successful collaborations have been produced but at the cost of much effort and resources.

CANSSI develops programs that support sustained interactions. CANSSI programs involve frequent collaborative interactions of distinct groups of people over time periods ranging from months to years. Frequently, the relatively mobility and freedom of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows means they are the “glue” that cement the research partnerships, which incidentally provides a way to train these new researchers in how to conduct collaborative research successfully. The different CANSSI programs target the building of collaborations across different dimensions, e.g., across institutions, disciplines, stages of career, and expertise. A key part of CANSSI evaluation of supported projects is joint outcomes, e.g., papers, talks, and cross-discipline interactions, and the subsequent career paths of students and postdoctoral fellows.

When you look back five years from now, how will you measure your success?

Don: Academia is a harsh and ruthless environment in terms of measuring activity and success. The focus is on counting outcomes such as grants, papers, invited talks, students and postdoctoral fellows advised, and citations of research. Perhaps, this is even more true in high-profile activities like the NSERC DIS program. We spend significant energy gathering outcome data for the annual reports to NSERC and for preparation for the next grant competition in five years, in which productivity as measured by counting outcomes will play a major role. So, a glib answer is that the evaluation of my success or failure as CANSSI Director will depend largely on counting outcomes and products of researchers supported by CANSSI.

But, in fact I do not give that a moment’s thought. One conclusion I have made over a long academic career is that if support is directed to researchers driven by their own scientific interests and ambitions and to students and postdoctoral fellows desiring to establish careers, outcomes like papers, talks, grants, etc., flow like water as a result. In fact, we spend so much time trying to quantify outcomes because there is just so much activity it is hard to keep track, and figuring out ways to concisely describe the success in these terms is a significant problem.

So for me personally, the success of CANSSI will be determined by how the Canadian statistical sciences community answers the question, “Did CANSSI help?” This has a scientific dimension, of course. Did CANSSI programs and support help researchers tackle an emerging research challenge or problem facing society? Did CANSSI support lead to strong collaborations bridging disciplines? Did CANSSI-supported research outcomes influence public policy and Canadian communities in a positive way? But this question has an equally important human dimension. Did CANSSI support help a new professor learn how to mentor graduate students and win their first individual research grant? Did a team lead in a Collaborative Research Team earn a promotion or a research honour? Did a student at a community college labouring under a full-time job find a route into graduate school and a faculty position because they took part in a CANSSI-sponsored program? Has the Canadian statistics community become more inclusive and supportive?