NSERC 2030: A Strategic Plan

Discussion papers

Supporting researchers throughout their careers

This document is one of a series of discussion papers generated by NSERC staff to foster discussion during the development of the NSERC 2030 strategic plan. Items presented do not represent policy directions; they are meant to elicit discussion among NSERC’s stakeholders. Similarly, all themes discussed in these papers are cost-neutral: they would not require new program funding or cuts to existing programming in order to fund new initiatives.

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The Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) report Powering Discovery states that “Cultivating a robust, resilient and diverse scientific workforce is central to the development of a nation’s research capacity and requires supporting researchers throughout their careers” (CCA, 2021). Defining each stage of a research career can be complex, given the diversity of paths within and outside academia, as well as across disciplines and sectors. Each research career stage presents unique needs, challenges and opportunities.

Findings on a variety of career stages (postdoctoral fellows, early career researchers [ECRs], mid- and late-career researchers, college researchers, and non-academic career paths) were examined in writing this paper. The focus of this paper is to explore how NSERC could better define and support different research career stages. Here, we focus on the academic research career path.

Opportunities, risks and strategic considerations

Efforts to define and fund researchers across several research career stages have been underway and are illustrated by changes in existing program policies and by new funding opportunities. Launching the New Generation was one of the five themes of NSERC 2020, and its goal was to enable early-career scientists to launch independent research careers. Strategy implementation was enriched by recommendations from Canada’s Fundamental Science Review (Advisory Panel on Federal Support for Fundamental Science, 2017) and resulted in one of the key strategic priorities of the Canada Research Coordinating Committee (CRCC), as described in NSERC’s Departmental Plan:

In 2021–22, NSERC will continue to work with CIHR [Canadian Institutes of Health Research] and SSHRC [Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council] on the implementation of the Tri-Agency ECR Action Plan. This will include providing access to research funding opportunities, such as Discovery Launch Supplements, which provide timely resources to support ECRs as they establish their research programs and hire students in diverse areas ranging from environmental sciences and agriculture to information and communications technologies. Reporting standards will be established to accurately track, monitor and inform decisions regarding the experiences of ECRs in academia. (NSERC, 2021)

Several policies have been implemented by the Tri-Agency (NSERC, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council [SSHRC] and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research [CIHR]) as well as the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) in support of ECRs. For example, the Discovery grants (DG) program has high success rates and dedicated support mechanisms for ECRs. Given that DG funds only researchers with an academic appointment, only a subset of all career stages is targeted by these actions. Staged career support is not widely used across NSERC’s other funding programs.

The CCA report Powering Discovery emphasizes that awards segmented by career stage are particularly successful in supporting researchers at different career stages. The authors of the CCA report believe that the inclusion of early- and mid-career researchers in a continuum of awards, where there is a more explicit understanding of critical career transition points, helps manage these transitions better than programs focused on isolated career stages. As an example, the European Research Council (ERC) divides funding programs into three categories: Starting (two to seven years after PhD), Consolidator (seven to 12 years after PhD) and Advanced (European Research Council, n.d.).

Although existing funding mechanisms do not include targeted approaches specifically for mid-career researchers, opportunities exist for progressive funding through flexibility in the DG and Alliance grants programs.The DG program successfully disburses funds in a career stage continuum, with average grant sizes generally increasing with progression in career. Providing a one-year extension (for a sixth year of funding) in the DG program further supports continued success in the transition from ECR to mid-career. (At present, NSERC does not have a definition for mid-career researchers.) Further data and analysis are required to explore the needs of this segment of the research community.

The current funding landscape provides stipends for Canadian postdoctoral fellows but few opportunities for these researchers to be equipped with independent research funding. Maximizing support to postdoctoral fellows and fostering their independence can help facilitate the transition to a fully independent research program as an ECR. Without such support, ECRs may consider establishing themselves in other countries perceived to have better/more support for launching and growing a research career.

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH, n.d.), the European Commission (EC, n.d.), and the Dutch Research Council (NWO, n.d.) provide funding instruments tailored to postdoctoral research to support the development of independent ideas. Lessons learned from these programs may provide insight into the ways NSERC can better support postdoctoral researchers in Canada. However, providing access to research funding alone might be insufficient if funding for infrastructure and expenses related to indirect costs is unavailable.

By continuing to support research program development and growth throughout researchers’ careers, NSERC will continue successful advancement in EDI-related program and policy development and inclusive hiring.

Considering available funding, careful consideration is required as to whether NSERC should leave unaltered funding programs that have been successful in ensuring advancement of career stages or consider shifting dedicated funding to new targeted opportunities. There are also opportunities to evaluate whether NSERC’s programs outside of DG are distributing funds broadly across career stages to better support those in early- and mid-career stages.

Introducing considerations for different career stages or segmenting awards by career stages could be further explored across the agency. This would require strengthening definitions and data collection for career stages to improve information on the current funding landscape.

Discussion questions

Competition for limited funds makes establishing or continuing research careers difficult, jeopardizing the development of the next generation of researchers.

  • Considering the limited availability of new funding, how could NSERC better define and support different career stages? How should NSERC prioritize continuing to fund existing programs vis-à-vis offering new opportunities related to career stages?
  • Should NSERC explore providing competitive research funding to postdoctoral fellows to give them an opportunity to pursue independent research ideas and provide a bridge to an academic career?
  • Should NSERC fund all career stages broadly or take a more targeted approach?
    • What is the best strategy: defined, career-focused programs for the different stages, or programs with built-in flexibility to consider the different needs and realities of various career stages?
  • Awards segmented by career stage could help counter the biases and systemic barriers experienced by researchers from disadvantaged or underrepresented groups. Should some existing programs consider a targeted approach towards specific career stages?
  • Could flexibility be implemented within current programs (e.g., Alliance grants, Collaborative Research and Training Experience [CREATE] program) to provide opportunities that best match researchers’ own circumstances (i.e., college researchers)?


Advisory Panel on Federal Support for Fundamental Science. (2017). Investing in Canada’s Future: Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research. Ottawa, ON: Canada’s Fundamental Science Review. Retrieved from http://www.sciencereview.ca/eic/site/059.nsf/vwapj/ScienceReview_April2017-rv.pdf/$file/ScienceReview_April2017-rv.pdf

Council of Canadian Academies. (2021). Powering Discovery: The Expert Panel on International Practices for Funding Natural Sciences and Engineering Research. Ottawa, ON: Council of Canadian Academies. Retrieved from https://cca-reports.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Powering-Discovery-Full-Report-EN_DIGITAL_FINAL.pdf

European Commission. (n.d.) Postdoctoral fellowships. Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/research/mariecurieactions/actions/postdoctoral-fellowships

European Research Council. (n.d.) Funding. Retrieved from https://erc.europa.eu/funding

National Institutes of Health. (n.d.) Pathway to independence awards. Retrieved from https://www.nigms.nih.gov/training/careerdev/Pages/PathwayIndependence.aspx

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. (2021). Departmental Plan 2021-22. Ottawa, ON: NSERC. Retrieved from https://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/NSERC-CRSNG/Reports-Rapports/DP/2021-2022/index_eng.asp?wbdisable=false

NWO. (n.d.) NWO talent programme. Retrieved from https://www.nwo.nl/en/researchprogrammes/nwo-talent-programme

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