NSERC 2030: A Strategic Plan
Supporting multi- and interdisciplinary 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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InterdisciplinaryFootnote 1 research has been on the rise since the 1980s. Canada’s Fundamental Science Review re-stated the importance of science evolving to tackle new problems: “Many of the issues facing Canada and the world involve inexorably interconnected natural and social phenomena and processes that require distinct kinds of science to understand” (Advisory Panel on Federal Support for Fundamental Science, 2017). In 2021, the Canadian Council of Academies (CCA) report Powering Discovery noted that, by fostering greater connectivity in the research network, natural sciences and engineering (NSE) funders can help to stimulate novel partnerships and research questions (CCA, 2021).
Over the past decades, NSERC has also evolved and adapted its funding opportunities and peer review processes, guided in part since the early 2000s by NSERC’s Guidelines for the Preparation and Review of Applications in Interdisciplinary Research. NSERC 2030 represents a timely opportunity to revisit these guidelines (last updated 2010) and consider NSERC’s future directions in this regard.
The CCA report noted that “the extent to which interdisciplinary research proposals are disadvantaged by standard peer review has not been conclusively determined.” Further information would be valuable, as some comments received in the initial NSERC 2030 survey (March 2021) seem to indicate a perception that interdisciplinary research does not fare as well as disciplinary research in peer review committees. However, it was not clear whether these comments were related to NSERC, to the NSE, or more broadly. For example, concerns about interdisciplinary research were often mentioned in the context of other related themes, including EDI, access to high-risk high-reward research opportunities, and funding duration. Factors discussed in those responses included the lack of truly interdisciplinary funding for fundamental discovery research; the balance between disciplinary and interdisciplinary funding; and the flexibility to address emerging interdisciplinary research in the NSE, or in areas outside of NSERC’s mandate.
The recent Discovery Horizons pilot initiative is designed to support interdisciplinary research that connects, crosses or falls between the traditional disciplines of the three agencies. At NSERC, very few other programs, other than the Collaborative Health Research Projects (CHRP), have been dedicated to interdisciplinary research that crosses agency boundaries. Other programs, such as the Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) program and Alliance grants, offer the possibility to collaborate with researchers in fields other than the NSE but are not specifically designed to promote interdisciplinary research. Many Tri-Agency programs have been developed over the years to target interdisciplinary research covered by the granting agencies, such as the New Frontiers in Research Fund and the Tri-Agency Interdisciplinary Peer Review Committee pilot (responding to the recommendation of the Advisory Panel on Federal Support for Fundamental Science report to ensure the agencies have robust mechanisms to review and support interdisciplinary research). Additional programs could be beneficial to address emerging disciplines that are outside of the fields traditionally covered by NSERC, CIHR and SSHRC. Emerging interdisciplinary fields offer challenges in scope and definition, and raise the question of fit with NSERC’s mandate. It is not clear at what point an emerging research topic becomes an established new discipline.
Several NSERC programs and prizes are open to interdisciplinary research. What is not being captured by existing programs? Is more needed? And if so, is it exclusively in the realm of NSERC’s mandate or would this type of research be better addressed in collaboration with partners? Are there new partnerships with other research funders that need to be developed? Are there further opportunities to encourage or facilitate interdisciplinary research in existing programs? For Discovery grants, for example, interdisciplinary research is reviewed using the conference model, which offers a broad pool of reviewers. Are there challenges preventing the integration of emerging research that extends beyond NSERC’s core mandate? Are new committees needed to review proposals in areas not traditionally covered (e.g., design, bioethics, geography, business/innovation, etc.)?
For peer review, as NSERC works to redefine research excellence through the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA; NSERC, 2019) and through an equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) lens, how can excellence be defined in the context of both disciplinary and interdisciplinary research? As we look at the landscape of NSERC funding, including funding for colleges and universities of different sizes, what are the specific challenges to participating in interdisciplinary research and how do they vary depending on institutional context and region?
NSERC may be better positioned to identify and adapt to emerging interdisciplinary fields through the increased use of digital information management tools. The development of the Tri-Agency Grant Management System provides an opportunity to remove administrative barriers and to reduce the workload for researchers and peer reviewers who may interact with multiple agencies.
- What are barriers and challenges to interdisciplinary research, in the NSE and in the broader research landscape?
- What should NSERC’s interdisciplinary approach be based on: the disciplinary background(s) of the investigator(s), the composition of a team of investigators or the nature of the problem?
- What is the importance of fundamental interdisciplinary research vis-à-vis high-risk, project-based interdisciplinary research?
- Given NSERC’s mandate, role and programs, what haven’t we done to support interdisciplinary research that is important? Do we need to review NSERC’s mandate and enabling legislation to better support interdisciplinary research?
- In the next decade, should NSERC universally adopt a thematic-based approach to replace disciplinary-based funding?
- While it is still early to tell, could the New Frontiers in Research Fund serve as a model for more general interdisciplinary programs, including research among NSE disciplines?
Selecting the Appropriate Federal Granting Agency (2010) https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/063.nsf/eng/h_FEE7261A.html
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
Benavidez, G. A., Mandelbaum, J. & Fisk, C. E. (2021). Complexities of COVID-19 demonstrate the need for more interdisciplinary research training in graduate school. Public Health Reports, 136(4), 391–393. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1177/00333549211013320
NSERC. (2019). San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment. Retrieved from https://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/NSERC-CRSNG/policies-politiques/DORA-DORA_eng.asp
Gillis, D., Nelson, J., Driscoll, B., Hodgins, K., Fraser, E., Jacobs, S. (2017). Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research and education in Canada: a review and suggested framework. Collected Essays on Learning and Teaching, 10. Retrieved from https://celt.uwindsor.ca/index.php/CELT/article/view/4745
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