Higher Education Strategy Associates

Ivory Tower Stakhanovites

Those of you familiar with mid-century Soviet culture will be acquainted with the work of Alexey Stakhanov, a Ukrainian miner who was so enthused by the ideals of socialism that he would constantly overfulfill his coal quota. On one occasion in 1935, he managed to mine 227 tons of coal in a single shift, which was equivalent to about 30 times his production target. It was a propaganda stunt, of course. But Stakhanov’s legend lives on, not least in the form of those annoying people who, no matter how hard you work, always just seem to get more done than you do.

Anyway, my colleague Paul Jarvey and I were trolling through granting council data the other day (actually, just SSHRC and NSERC data; by a remarkable coincidence, CIHR’s attitude to data transparency also belongs to the Stalinist era), as part of a little internal project we have looking at the distribution of research grants. For kicks, we decided to look at the right-hand tail of the data – the real outliers who get more research grants than anyone else.

It turns out that two professors stand out above all the others in this country when it comes to sponsored research grants. Alexey Stakhanov, meet your Canadian academic equivalents: Donald Smith, a plant biologist at McGill University and Ajay Dalai, a chemical engineer from the University of Saskatchewan. Between 2006 and 2010, these two received $2.9 million in NSERC funding – but, rather more remarkably, were each the recipients of two new NSERC grants per year.

To be clear, that’s not two recurring grants lasting over six years. That’s two brand new ones, each year, for six years. Some of which were recurring. In total, Smith picked up twelve separate NSERC grants over a 6-year period, and Dalai eleven. And that’s not counting Smith’s work in the Biofuels Network Centre of Excellence or Dalai’s Canada Research Chair.

No, we haven’t the foggiest idea how either of them does it, though we’d assume that brigade-level complements of graduate students are somehow involved. Nevertheless, we’re seriously impressed. These two somehow have bottled the research productivity genie and their secrets need to be understood.

Or perhaps just poached. If you can’t beat ‘em, you could always try hiring them. All you enterprising science and engineering deans wanting to increase your granting council success rates, please form an orderly queue over here…

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3 Responses to Ivory Tower Stakhanovites

  1. chantal binda says:

    I am working at the Centre SÈVE, University of Sherbrooke in Québec. We are an interinstitutional research centre consisting of over fifty researchers. One of our researchers is Dr. Donald Smith from McGill University. Before I refer to that information myself for our newsletter and website, I would like to know how you got the information provided in the article. What was your methodology?

    Thanks for your help.

    • Alex Usher says:

      I’m not sure it deserves a word like “methodology”. It’s a simple count of grants awarded by the two granting councils. The lists are publicly available in excel format – it’s a pretty simple matter to sort them and count them.

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