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Special Research Opportunity Program

There will be no further competitions for this program.

As of Budget 2009, NSERC will continue to support research that is urgent and has a strong potential for breakthroughs through other programs. Existing funding commitments will be honoured, however, NSERC will not continue the Special Research Opportunity program.

Read the complete message from NSERC President, Dr. Suzanne Fortier, and the Honourable James Edwards, Vice-President and Chair of Council, about the Strategic Review and Budget 2009.

Duration Up to three years
Application Deadline The program is now closed.
How to Apply NSERC is no longer receiving new applications for this program.
Application Forms Letter of Intent
Form 101
Form 100
Apply on-line
Program Contact View Contact Information

Important Information

NSERC-Initiated Requests for Proposals

Program Objectives

The Special Research Opportunity (SRO) program supports unique, emerging research opportunities that are timely, urgent, high-risk or have a strong potential for breakthrough that will be of substantial benefit to Canada. The program also supports pre-research activities to investigate and develop potential new collaborative projects necessary to respond to these national and international opportunities.

What is a Special Research Opportunity?

The special opportunity must be unique, unforeseen, and outside the normal evolution and advancement of a longer term research program. It is timely and linked to a window of opportunity that did not exist a year ago, and will not exist in the future.

In addition, the research project must be novel, high risk, or have a strong potential for breakthrough. Pre-research activities must have the potential to lead to a significant new collaborative project of benefit to Canada.

Advancements of ongoing research and collaboration, such as research supported through an NSERC Discovery Grant, do not constitute a special opportunity. It is understood and expected that new knowledge is developed and that discoveries and breakthroughs are made through all of NSERC’s grant programs. Discovery Grants also allow researchers to pursue new research interests within NSERC’s mandate.


Requests to the SRO program must not be eligible for support under other NSERC programs regardless of funding limitations. Requests to the SRO program may be researcher-initiated or NSERC-initiated through a Request for Proposals. Researcher-initiated proposals can be submitted at any time.

A special research opportunity may be undertaken by an individual or by a team of researchers. It may be specific to one discipline or interdisciplinary. It can be national or international in scope. The SRO program supports projects involving any field of the natural sciences or engineering. The proposed project may range from fundamental knowledge creation to knowledge application. Support will be for up to three years for a specific research project with defined milestones and objectives.

The SRO program also supports pre-research activities involving researchers in Canada and abroad. Typically, this support is for a workshop or a short series of meetings with identified objectives, a clear description of the rationale for the participation of each researcher, and a specific plan to establish an international and/or multidisciplinary research project that addresses a special opportunity.

Types of projects that may be considered by the SRO program:

  • A project that can be undertaken only in conjunction with a specific and unusual world event.
  • A workshop to define and plan Canadian participation in a major international research initiative.
  • An interdisciplinary effort to address an emerging problem of importance to Canada.
  • A project that leads to, or exploits, a breakthrough discovery which establishes or maintains Canada’s international leadership position in a niche area.
  • A novel, high risk project with the potential to change the direction of thought in a discipline or open up new areas of discovery.

Application & Review Procedures

There is no deadline for researcher-initiated submissions. Proposals must be submitted by an eligible individual or group of researchers. Partnerships and collaborations are encouraged where relevant.

Applying to the SRO program involves two phases.

Phase 1: Letter of Intent

The SRO program is highly selective, with pre-screening based on the Letter of Intent. Only proponents successful at the Letter of Intent stage will be invited to submit a full application. Applicants are encouraged to consult with an SRO Program Officer in preparing the Letter of Intent.

A Letter of Intent is submitted on Form 184. NSERC staff, with input from external referees and the SRO Steering Committee as required, use the letter of intent to assess the fit with the program. Decisions on Letters of Intent normally take four to eight weeks.

In the Letter of Intent, the onus is on the applicant to clearly explain:

  • the program fit (including an explanation of why this is a special opportunity and why it is not suitable for other NSERC programs);
  • the project or pre-research activity proposed and its significance;
  • the rationale for the team composition and how the team has the necessary expertise for the successful execution of the proposed activity (if applicable); and
  • the need for the funds requested and the relationship with other sources of funds held or applied for by the applicants.

Applicant(s) requesting funds from other supporting organizations can apply to the SRO program at the time that the opportunity becomes apparent. Applicants do not need to wait for funding decisions from other agencies in order to submit a Letter of Intent. NSERC funding could be offered conditional on successfully receiving funding from ther agencies.

Funding for equipment can be requested from the SRO program if it is essential for the proposed project, but this should not be the major thrust of the proposal.

Phase 2: Application

Full applications must be submitted within threemonths of the invitation from NSERC. The complete application will consist of the following:

  • Application for a Grant (Form 101).
  • Personal Data Form (Form 100) for each applicant (collaborators must also submit a Form 100 or a C.V. in a comparable format of no more than six pages).
  • Letter(s) of support from Canadian or foreign organizations or collaborators describing their contributions (in cash or in kind) to the research project (if applicable) and confirming agreement to any data sharing or IP issues.

Decisions on applications normally take up to four months.

Review Procedures and Program Budget

The review process will depend on the specific nature of the proposal and the amount requested. Proposals requesting $25,000 per year or less may be assessed internally at NSERC. Proposals requesting more than this amount will generally be reviewed by external experts and, if sufficiently complex, may require evaluation by site visit or peer review committee.

The SRO program has a total annual budget of approximately $11 million dollars. The majority of the budget goes to ongoing commitments and Requests for Proposals. Each year, NSERC invests approximately $2 million to new investigator-initiated SRO projects.

For investigator-initiated awards, the program is structured in such a way that awards are granted throughout the year. Given the unpredictable nature of incoming proposals, both in terms of timing and amounts, it is possible that in some years the budget may be spent before the end of the fiscal period. Applicants are encouraged to consult with an SRO Program Officer if they have any questions concerning the SRO funding situation.

If the SRO budget for investigator-initiated awards runs out, NSERC will:

  • inform applicants who have submitted a Letter of Intent to Apply for a Special Research Opportunity Grant (Form 184), or an application, or who have been invited to prepare an application;
  • continue with the review of Letters of Intent and applications until there is a funding decision; and
  • establish a waiting list for recommended projects.

The waiting list will be established as funding decisions become available. In the event that new funding becomes available, NSERC will proceed with funding of projects on the waiting list as long as the projects continue to meet the program criteria and the opportunity has not passed. In the event that the funding available does not meet the amount required to finance all projects on the waiting list, the SRO Steering Committee will be asked to prioritize the applications based on the SRO selection criteria.

Selection Criteria

The selection criteria are:

  • the special opportunity;
  • the quality of the proposal;
  • the excellence of the participant(s);
  • the nature and extent of the collaboration (if applicable);
  • the quality of the work plan (assessed as part of the evaluation of the application);
  • the training of highly qualified personnel (if applicable); and
  • the need for funds and suitability for SRO funding.

Sample Questions to Guide the Evaluation of SRO Proposals

This table presents examples of questions that can be asked based on each SRO selection criteria. These are meant as a guide for the preparation of proposals and for reviewers. Not all questions will be asked for each proposal. This is not an exhaustive list.

SRO Selection Criteria
Special Opportunity
  • How did this opportunity arise? Is there a clear window of opportunity?
  • How does this particular initiative fit with what is being done nationally and/or internationally?
  • Is there the potential for a significant benefit to Canada?
  • Is this a niche area for Canada?
  • Why is this initiative not appropriate for consideration under other NSERC programs?

For projects:

  • Is this a new project or part of ongoing activities?
  • Does the project challenge existing paradigms, develop new methods or techniques, or address an unexplored area?
  • Is this high-risk or breakthrough research?

For pre-research:

  • Is this a new collaborative project that will be developed?
Quality of the Proposal
  • Do the proposed activities take full advantage of this opportunity?
  • Does the applicant give an accurate assessment of the current efforts in this area?
  • Are the benefits to Canada resulting from this activity realistically stated?
  • Have the objectives and expected outcomes been clearly defined?
  • Is the scope reasonable? Can the activities be completed in the estimated time?

For projects:

  • Are the conceptual framework, hypotheses, design, methods, and analyses clear and appropriate?
  • Does the research use novel concepts, approaches, or methods?

For pre-research activities:

  • Is the potential research topic well defined and worth pursuing?
  • Are the activities proposed the best method for developing this new collaborative project?

Excellence of the Research Participant(s)
  • Does/do the researcher(s) have the necessary knowledge, expertise, and experience?
  • Have the pertinence of the expertise, the role, and the expected contributions of each member been satisfactorily described?
  • Is the expertise complementary and well integrated?
Nature and extent of the collaboration (if applicable)
  • Is this a new collaboration?
  • Is the collaboration essential to this proposed project?
  • What does each collaborator bring in terms of knowledge, expertise and/or resources?
  • What is the nature and extent of the collaboration?
  • Are there integration of activities, complementarity of expertise, and synergy?
  • What is the value added of collaborating?
Quality of the work plan (assessed at the application phase)
  • Is the leadership and management of the project clear and convincing?
  • Will it ensure effective planning, budgeting, and interaction among all of the participants?
Training of highly qualified personnel (HQP) (if applicable)
  • Has the applicant demonstrated the capacity to supervise the number and type of trainees proposed?
  • Is the training appropriate for the project proposed?
  • Is the proposed balance between undergraduates, postgraduates, postdoctoral fellows, and others appropriate?
  • If little or no training is planned, has an appropriate justification been given?
Need for funds and suitability for SRO funding
  • Is the budget reasonable and well justified for the proposed activities?
  • Are there other sources of funding available?
  • Is the relationship to other sources of support currently held or applied for well explained? Is there any overlap? Would there be leverage of NSERC funds?


Each grantee will be required to follow the Terms and Conditions of their award and submit a final report. Funding is not renewable.

Grantees will be required to submit NSERC’s Grants in Aid of Research, Statement of Account (Form 300). Payment of the second instalment will depend on the use of funds and on the projected amount remaining in the grant account at the end of the first year. Interim progress reports may also be required, and progress on research may affect future instalments.