NSERC 2030: Discovery. Innovation. Inclusion.

Discussion papers

Supporting Indigenous researchers and research

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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Researchers with Indigenous (First Nations, Inuit or Métis) identity are underrepresented in the natural sciences and engineering (NSE). Research done with Indigenous communities, on Indigenous lands and/or incorporating Indigenous knowledge has been under-recognized, under-valued, under-funded and conducted in a culturally inappropriate manner.

In early 2020, the Tri-Agency (NSERC, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council [SSHRC] and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research [CIHR]) released a strategic plan for Strengthening Indigenous Research Capacity (SIRC). The plan, Setting new directions to support Indigenous research and research training in Canada 2019–2022 (Canada Research Coordinating Committee, 2019), responds to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s report Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future(TRC, 2015), and its calls to action related to Indigenous research and training. NSERC has done some preliminary work to advance the SIRC plan’s strategic directions. NSERC signed a memorandum of understanding and is developing a workplan with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) to support the implementation of ITK’s National Inuit Strategy on Research. NSERC is also working with CIHR and SSHRC to advance the SIRC strategic directions through Tri-Agency working groups focused on administrative barriers, appropriate review, ethical conduct, and funding opportunities.

Nevertheless, improving support for Indigenous research and research training in NSE fields has been limited compared to support in the social sciences and humanities and health fields. NSERC has not yet established a definition of Indigenous research in the NSE context or comprehensive cross-NSERC guidelines for reviewing applications that involve Indigenous research. In 2020, Wong, Ballegooyen, Ignace et al. published 10 calls to action to natural scientists in Canada to enable reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians in their work. NSERC recognizes the need and opportunity to clearly define the agency’s role and intentions in reconciliation through research support.

Opportunities to advance Indigenous research and researchers in the natural sciences and engineering

Building relationships

Traditionally, Western science has been engaged with Indigenous communities to encourage learning in Western science systems and to advance Western interests. Moving forward, NSERC and the community must recognize that Indigenous communities have unique approaches to natural sciences and engineering research, rooted in Indigenous communities’ unique experience and relationship with the natural world. Recognizing this and understanding how to support these approaches is critical for NSERC to effectively partner with Indigenous communities and researchers.

NSERC must work to build direct relationships with Indigenous peoples and communities to establish the organization’s role as an ally and to facilitate co-development of the strategic directions that best support Indigenous peoples and priorities. A fundamental part of developing these relationships is considering what role NSERC can and should play in support of Indigenous communities, what mechanisms should be used for engagement, and what tools would be important in establishing true partnerships. These roles will be further characterized through a distinctions-based approach, which recognizes the differing interests, priorities and circumstances of First Nations, the Métis Nation and Inuit people, and their communities. Lessons can be learned from relationships that have already been built (e.g., the Networks of Centres of Excellence ArcticNet, the Canadian Mountain Network), as well as work that has already been done by CIHR and SSHRC to build relationships related to their areas of focus. Considerations include engaging with existing advisory structures (e.g., Reference Group for the Appropriate Review of Indigenous Research, future Interdepartmental Indigenous STEM [I-STEM] Wisdom Panel), working with Indigenous political representation (e.g., the memorandum of understanding with ITK), exploring NSERC’s role in supporting relationship-building (e.g., support pre-research, post-research etc.), and building the expertise and capacity required within NSERC to support these relationships.

To understand the scope of the relationships that NSERC should seek to foster, Indigenous research needs to be defined in the NSE context. This will involve broadening the concept of research beyond Western knowledge systems to embrace non-Western types of research and Indigenous ways of knowing. We know that Indigenous research needs to be grounded and guided by Indigenous knowledge (IK). IK is rooted in the unique dependence on the natural world that Indigenous communities have experienced. That dependence involves a spiritual connection to the natural world that carries a profound sense of responsibility. IK and, by extension, Indigenous research in the NSE, must be grounded and guided by that perspective. The concept of Two-Eyed seeing, incorporating Indigenous ways of knowing and Western ways of knowing, is important in positioning Indigenous research firmly in NSERC’s ecosystem (e.g., Joe-Strack, Davey & Vernon, 2021).

In recognition of the unique context of Indigenous research in the NSE, mechanisms to directly provide research funding to Indigenous researchers and trainees need to be developed. Establishing support mechanisms that reflect the needs of Indigenous researchers and students at academic institutions will enable higher levels of participation. Conversely, support for Indigenous researchers and trainees outside of academic institutions and in settings that might better reflect the unique relationship of Indigenous communities to the natural world are also an important part of realizing and amplifying the benefits and impact of Indigenous research.

Supporting Indigenous research priorities

NSERC’s role in supporting Indigenous research and researchers begins with establishing a system in which research priorities articulated by Indigenous communities and researchers are clearly reflected in investment decisions. Achieving this objective in partnership with Indigenous communities implies considerations of new funding opportunities, access to existing programs from the conceptualization of research questions to application, through review and funding decisions, and including evaluation of research and programmatic outcomes. Fundamental to these considerations is the requirement to reframe research excellence to appropriately value Indigenous research and its approaches, methods and impacts.

Guided by the SIRC plan, NSERC is working with its Tri-Agency partners on addressing administrative barriers, designing funding opportunities and developing appropriate methods and guidance for peer review of Indigenous research. Much can be learned from existing initiatives, such as the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Indigenous program. There are also non-profit organizations, such as the Friends of the British Columbia Archives, that fund those who self-identify as Indigenous or organizations with a mandate to serve their interests.

In administering College and Community Innovation program, NSERC has a unique opportunity to build on learning and research that often takes place in remote areas and in close partnership with communities. Furthermore, Indigenous students obtain college degrees and diplomas at the same rate as the national average (23%) but obtain Bachelor’s degrees at a rate of 11%, well below the national average (29% national average).

During this process, the breadth of Indigenous research priorities must include priorities for all who identify as Indigenous and the specific priorities from different First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples. This also includes the priorities of Indigenous women, 2SLGBTQQIA+, persons with disabilities and other intersecting identities.

Building capacity

To ensure long-term change in NSE research, there is a real opportunity in supporting the youngest and fastest-growing population in Canada by supporting Indigenous people's interest in and entry into the NSE. Support at all levels needs to be considered, beginning with outreach to and engagement of youth. Establishing appropriate ways to support Indigenous scholars throughout their careers includes considerations such as providing culturally appropriate mentoring and support as well as exploring opportunities for students and researchers to undertake outreach, become role models in their communities and get involved in community-based research. This support also includes acknowledging the interests of individuals and ensuring that support does not include expectations or requirements of Indigenous scholars that exceed those of their peers.

Building capacity also calls for greater recognition that Western science needs capacity-building with respect to Indigenous approaches to the NSE. NSERC’s role could include a convener component, promoting education on principles related to research ethics, treatment of data (First Nations principles of OCAP [ownership, control, access and possession]) and Two-Eyed Seeing, as well as supporting best practices or network approaches to promoting engagement and reciprocity in research. In addition, this could include a role for NSERC in amplifying the receptor capacity of postsecondary institutions to support Indigenous-led research.

Finally, capacity-building is also an important consideration within NSERC. Supporting Indigenous research implies building cultural awareness and ensuring representation of Indigenous perspectives and priorities through training as well as through hiring and promotion.

Prioritizing inclusivity of Indigenous research and researchers benefits the entire science and engineering community, as we collectively gain a more comprehensive understanding of the growing challenges we face in climate change, environmental engineering, resource management, and more. As NSERC works with Indigenous peoples and communities to build relationships, establish support for Indigenous research, and build capacity, we hope to further NSERC’s mandate through the principles of relevant, reciprocal, respectful and responsible research, in true partnership with Indigenous communities.

Discussion questions

  • For NSERC to fully integrate Indigenous research and its associated context and concepts, what are the most important milestones to reach in 10 years?
  • Are there any opportunities being overlooked, and is there something more transformative that NSERC should be emphasizing?
  • How should NSERC include Indigenous communities as true partners in contributing to and implementing this strategic plan?
  • What is NSERC’s role in supporting Indigenous research and researchers, and in what ways does it extend beyond administering research funding?
  • What risks should NSERC consider as we work on implementing this strategic plan? What would be some appropriate mitigation approaches?


Canada Research Coordinating Committee. (2019). Setting new directions to support Indigenous research and research training in Canada 2019–2022. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/research-coordinating-committee/priorities/indigenous-research/strategic-plan-2019-2022.html

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future: Summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Retrieved from https://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2015/trc/IR4-7-2015-eng.pdf

Joe-Strack, D.J., Davey, T., and Vernon, M. (2021). Two-eyed seeing research program established in Yukon. Yukon University. Retrieved September 9, 2021, from https://www.yukonu.ca/news/202106/two-eyed-seeing-research-program-established-yukon

University of Guelph. (2021, September 1). Indigenous research lab to be established in U of G Arboretum. U of G News. Retrieved September 1, 2021, from https://news.uoguelph.ca/2021/08/u-of-g-to-establish-permanent-indigenous-research-lab-in-arboretum/

Ministry of Indigenous Affairs. (2021). Funding for Indigenous Economic Development. Government of Ontario. Retrieved September 1, 2021, from https://www.ontario.ca/page/funding-indigenous-economic-development

Wong, C., Ballegooyen, K., Ignace, L., Johnson, M.J. and Swanson, H. (2020). Towards reconciliation: 10 Calls to Action to natural scientists working in Canada. FACETS, 5(1): 769–783. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1139/facets-2020-0005

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