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NSERC 2030: Discovery. Innovation. Inclusion.

Discussion papers

Building the next generation of research talent

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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As a central element of its mandate, NSERC has played a vital role in fostering research talent across Canada. Given that the training landscape has evolved considerably over time, many recent reports, including Degrees of Success (CCA, 2021a), have highlighted key drivers/opportunities for how highly qualified personnel (HQP) can be supported into the future and for the benefit of Canada. The pandemic has further highlighted the need for changes in how trainees are supported. A summary of an environmental scanning exercise and a list of selected references can be found at the end of this paper.

Based on the outcome of the scanning exercise, the current pandemic context, and the guidance of the Canada Research Coordinating Committee (CRCC), the three federal granting agencies are exploring key themes to enhance training and the training environment. These include:

  • equity, diversity and inclusion
  • international mobility and globalization
  • evolving career paths
  • harmonization and streamlining efforts

Other aspects, such as support for Indigenous researchers and talent development, generally are discussed in another NSERC 2030 discussion paper: Supporting Indigenous researchers and research.


Equity, diversity and inclusion

NSERC is committed to excellence in research and research training. Achieving a more equitable, diverse and inclusive Canadian research enterprise is essential to creating the excellent, innovative and impactful research necessary to advance knowledge and understanding, and to respond to local, national and global challenges. Opportunities include:

  • monitoring application and award rates for underrepresented groups and implementing measures, as required, to support equitable outcomes
  • considering specific offerings to attract and support underrepresented groups
  • applying equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) analyses to programs, policies and processes to identify and address barriers to equitable participation of underrepresented groups

International mobility and globalization

Students and fellows can greatly benefit from opportunities for international research and mobility as part of their training programs. International experience can help students develop additional skills needed for the jobs of the future, such as adaptability, problem-solving and intercultural collaboration. In addition, student mobility and exchanges help Canadian research teams stay connected to the very best research taking place around the world. Opportunities include:

  • reviewing current programs and policies to encourage mobility, where possible, that take the pandemic context into account
  • developing options for broadening opportunities for international students

Evolving career paths

Although the number of students pursuing graduate education has risen steeply over the past decade, the number of full-time faculty positions has continued to decline. While careers in academia have been more available in the past, today, most graduate students will have a different career trajectory. The graduate training experience can therefore evolve, with a heightened focus on the development of professional skills and on exposure to different research and working environments. Opportunities include:

  • increasing emphasis on professional skills development
  • developing options to support postdoctoral fellow (PDF) research activities
  • providing flexibility for trainees to pursue experiential learning opportunities during research training

Harmonization and streamlining efforts

As recommended in Canada’s Fundamental Science Review (2017), the Tri-Agency should undertake a “process to reinvigorate and harmonize scholarship and PDF fellowship programs, and rationalize and optimize the use of current awards to attract international talent. While strict uniformity may be neither feasible nor desirable, more consistent and, in many cases, more generous levels of support (value and duration) are needed.”

The Tri-Agency actively collaborate on harmonization opportunities for scholarships and fellowships to provide a more consistent framework for the support of students and postdoctoral fellows across scientific disciplines. Further opportunities include:

  • implementing harmonized, flexible policies and program design elements in light of the pandemic
  • reviewing funding levels for trainees that takes discipline specificities into consideration
  • developing options for broadening support for undergraduate students

Summary of training environmental scan


Equity, diversity and inclusion
Opportunities Sample sources

Promote accessibility and overcome barriers to funding for equity-seeking groups

Fundamental Science Review (FSR)

Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships (CGS) evaluation

Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS) Top Five Asks

Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) reports

Canada Research Coordinating Committee’s (CRCC’s) EDI/early career researcher (ECR) plan

Gender Summit 2017 Report


International students and globalization
Opportunities Sample sources

Increase international portability of awards

Attract international students


Vanier CGS evaluation

Banting PDF evaluation

CCA reports


Evolving career paths
Opportunities Sample sources

Develop professional skills

Encourage experience in non-academic settings

Provide research stipends for PDFs

Open eligibility to PDFs to apply as principal investigator (PI) or co-applicants

Allow top-ups for professional skills development

Convert PDF awards into research grants, as relevant

NSERC Scholarships and Fellowships Evaluation


CAPS Top Five Asks

CCA reports

Manitoba Skills, Talent and Knowledge Strategy

Diagnostics of Tri-Agency training initiatives


Harmonization and streamlining
Opportunities Sample sources

Harmonize program policies

Fold agency-specific programs into CGS

Harmonize PDF programs

Increase value and duration of awards

Refocus Vanier and Banting programs


CAPS Top Five Asks

Vanier CGS Evaluation

Discussion questions

  • What role should NSERC play, including the use of EDI principles, as it relates to fairness of opportunity for students? What role can NSERC play in increasing diversity within the workforce as trainees transition to the workplace, either in academia or in other sectors?
  • Supporting students strengthens Canadian research. How should NSERC balance support to Canadian trainees while also attracting international talent?”
  • How can NSERC foster the mobility of students to acquire new skills and experiences? What role can NSERC play in training throughout all career stages (for example, retraining and reskilling of mentors and trainers)?
  • How can NSERC strike a balance between harmonization and streamlining with other agencies, on one hand, and providing programing that addresses are discipline-specific issues, on the other hand?


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

Alberts, B., Kirschner, M.W., Tilghman, S. and Varmus, H. (2014). Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 111(16), 5773–5777. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1404402111.

Bloom, N., Van Reenen, J. (2007). Measuring and explaining management practices across firms and countries. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 122(4), 1351–1408. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1162/qjec.2007.122.4.1351
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

Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars. (2020). “Top Five Asks” for the Canadian Granting Agencies.

Canadian Institutes of Health Research. (2010). Integrating Gender and Sex in Health Research [online module]. Retrieved from https://cihr-irsc.gc.ca/e/49347.html

Coates, K. S., Morrison, B. (2013). Campus Confidential, 2nd ed. James Lorimer & Company Ltd.

Council of Canadian Academies. (2012). Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity: the Gender Dimension: The Expert Panel on Women in University Research. Ottawa, ON: Council of Canadian Academies. Retrieved from https://cca-reports.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/wur_fullreporten.pdf.pdf

Council of Canadian Academies. (2021a). Degrees of Success: The Expert Panel on the Labour Market Transition of PhD Graduates. Ottawa, ON: Council of Canadian Academies. Retrieved from https://cca-reports.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Degrees-of-Success_FullReport_EN.pdf

Council of Canadian Academies. (2021b). 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

Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity. (2009). Management Matters, Working Paper 12. Retrieved from http://worldmanagementsurvey.org/wp-content/images/2010/07/ICP_Report_Manufacturing_WP12.pdf

Müller, Ruth. (2014).Racing for what? Anticipation and acceleration in the work and career practices of academic life science postdocs. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 15(3). Retrieved fromhttps://doi.org/10.17169/fqs-15.3.2245

NSERC. (2020). Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on research: NEW guidelines for NSERC’s community. Retrieved from https://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/NSERC-CRSNG/Policies-Politiques/COVID-COVID_eng.asp

Perkins, J. (2020, January 24). More students given financial freedom as Schulich Leader Scholarship doubles awards. The Globe and Mail.

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