NSERC 2030: Discovery. Innovation. Inclusion.

Discussion papers

Maintaining flexibility and agility in research funding

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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Maintaining flexibility and agility in research funding means being able to provide timely funding to researchers and to launch urgent calls quickly. However, it goes beyond that. It means NSERC is able to pivot more quickly while also experimenting with new processes. It means being able to deliver on the federal government’s priorities. It means trying to meet the needs of all NSERC’s stakeholders, from Canadian citizens to researchers, from administering organizations to businesses. This paper explores the topic through three themes:

(1) funding approach — Are there opportunities for increased responsiveness through changes to funding approaches?

(2) increasing economic output — How effective are NSERC’s programs in meeting this objective?

(3) mobilizing the research community — Can we get better at bringing the community together on key challenges?

Opportunities — Funding approach

The Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) report Powering Discovery states that “empirical evidence supports broader distribution of funds and higher success rates” (CCA, 2021). This has been repeatedly validated in past evaluations and reports, including Fortin and Currie (2013), despite the potential for inflation to erode the effectiveness of the system over time. The CCA report further references a report from NSERC’s awards database, stating that in 2018–2019, 10% of NSERC researchers received 57% of funds, driven by a combination of multiple awards and high-value grant programs (NSERC, 2020).

Long-term grant funding can provide stability to empower researchers to take greater risks (CCA, 2021). It could also be used to promote long-term partnerships. For example, the Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (FAPESP) in Brazil offered grants of up to 10 years, which were instrumental in facilitating successful partnerships with the private sector (CCA, 2021).

  • A system of modest grants with a broader distribution also depends on the availability of supplementary funding programs for Canadian researchers to access (CCA, 2021). In addition, the current competition structure of strict schedules on a periodic basis utilized by NSERC in most of its programs is not designed to accommodate time-sensitive ideas in response to sudden developments (CCA, 2021). Powering Discovery highlights the use of rapid-response funds, with proposals being submitted at any time, that allow researchers to quickly explore new fundamental research directions as they emerge.

Opportunities — Increasing economic output

Improving research and development (R&D), innovation and commercialization will ultimately benefit the economy of a country and the well-being of its citizens. In Canada, however, recognized strengths in academic research have not been fully transferred to the realm of innovation and commercialization (Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research [CECR], 2017). In addition, Canada’s R&D landscape stands out among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries because a large share of R&D is carried out in the higher education sector and there are low levels of business R&DFootnote 1 (CCA, 2021). Three barriers to innovation were identified as sub-themes: (1) academia-business linkages and receptor capacity; (2) university research commercialization; and (3) academia-business cultural divideFootnote 2 (CCA, 2018).

Boosting industrial R&D

Canadian industrial R&D spending is low and declining, and it is concentrated in industries that are intrinsically less R&D-intensive (including oil and gas, forestry, machinery and equipment, and finance) (CCA, 2018). NSERC is making investments in connecting academia and industry. Much of this investment focuses on research collaborations that develop and transfer knowledge, and will help businesses innovate.

De-risking innovation on the path to commercialization

Canada’s academic research is strong and well-regarded, while Canada’s business innovation and commercialization of academic research are comparatively weak (CCA, 2013). Innovators often face substantial challenges in accessing funding and investment for the earlier, riskier stages of commercialization, as these are not appealing to traditional profit-motivated investors. In this challenging environment, promising innovations may not reach maturity and therefore contribute to the well-being of Canadians (CECR, 2017). NSERC’s Idea to Innovation (I2I) grants were created to help address this issue; they focus on early-stage commercialization of academic research (NSERC, 2018).

Promoting entrepreneurial knowledge and inducing behavioural changes

Academic researchers may be driven more by the production of scientific knowledge, and less by commercializing research findings or translating them into goods or services (CCA, 2018). Training initiatives built into funding programs may help researchers identify opportunities for research with economic and/or societal impacts and build capacity for entrepreneurship. In addition, encouraging researchers to consider the economic and/or societal impacts of their research could drive them to form new partnerships with stakeholders in their local scientific community (CCA, 2021).

NSERC has several programs that encourage researchers to increase their training in these areas (e.g., Collaborative Research and Training Experience [CREATE] program).

Opportunities — Mobilizing the research community

Mobilizing the research community (researchers at postsecondary institutions, businesses, and not-for-profit organizations) is necessary for Canada’s success. Being centrally located in the research ecosystem, NSERC is ideally placed to convene these disparate groups (CCA, 2021). In this paper, the focus is on the research community’s potential to help forecast future trends and to tackle core challenges, potentially as part of a coordinated rapid response from government.Footnote 3

Forecasting future trends

Previously, the Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC) recommended priority research areas to the Government of Canada, but the council was deactivated in 2016. To help address this information-gathering and analysis function NSERC could regularly convene diverse groups of stakeholders to undertake foresight activities. Analyzing trends could inform some of NSERC’s funding activities and guide them towards promising areas of international and interdisciplinary scopeFootnote 4,Footnote 5 (CCA, 2021).

The typical process used by NSERC defines a theme (e.g., COVID-19) and then invites the research community to assemble teams and submit applications. A different approach may be to determine the topic and invite interested parties to participate in a workshop, during which potential new partnerships and groups may form to discuss ideas or ideas may be discussed in plenary with participants organizing into groups to further discuss an idea. In either case, the resulting partners write proposals immediately following the workshop, with successful applications receiving funding for projects conceived during the workshopFootnote 6,Footnote 7 (CCA, 2021).

Discussion questions

  • How can NSERC best bring the broad community together to address priority issues (develop networks, plan research, etc.)? Is there value in NSERC promoting development of teams and/or research around key topics? What are the best ways to achieve this? Are there any pitfalls?
  • Would it be a good idea to conduct foresight exercises to determine trends so that these could then be targeted for funding? What would be the best approach to conducting these exercises?
  • What should NSERC’s philosophy be toward funding (maximizing the number of grants versus focusing on a few researchers, large differences in grant size versus similar grant sizes, grants that are no more than five years versus some programs having longer grants)? For which programs should these changes be considered? Are there other things that need to be considered when implementing?
  • Should NSERC introduce a new fundamental funding opportunity that researchers can apply to at any time? What should be considered?
  • Does NSERC has a role to play in commercialization?
  • How effective are NSERC’s current efforts to connect researchers with industry partners? Are there areas where Canada’s industrial R&D potential is not being fully realized?
  • How can NSERC better support researchers and institutions that are focusing on the translation of their research into a marketable technology, product or service? What role could NSERC play in helping companies, investors and researchers/institutions work together more effectively to create and capture value?


Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research. (2017). Evaluation of the Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research.Retrieved fromhttps://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/_doc/EvaluationCECR_e.pdf

Council of Canadian Academies. (2013). The State of Industrial R&D in Canada: The Expert Panel on Industrial R&D in Canada. Ottawa, ON: Council of Canadian Academies. Retrieved from https://cca-reports.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/ird_fullreporten.pdf

Council of Canadian Academies. (2018). Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada: The Expert Panel on the State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada. Ottawa, ON: Council of Canadian Academies. Retrieved from http://new-report.scienceadvice.ca/assets/report/Competing_in_a_Global_Innovation_Economy_FullReport_EN.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

Fortin, J.M., Currie, D.J. (2013). Big science vs. little science: how scientific impact scales with funding. PLoS One, 8(6), e65263. Retrieved from https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/file?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0065263&type=printable

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). (2018). Final Report – Evaluation of Commercialization of Research: Idea to Innovation Grants. Retrieved from https://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/_doc/Reports-Rapports/Evaluations/2018/CoR121Final_e.pdf

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). (2020). NSERC’s Awards Database. Retrieved September 2020 from https://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/aseoro/Results-Resultats_eng.asp

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