Canada and UK strengthen research infrastructure ties; NSERC hints of new international program

Jessica Galang
November 18, 2020

Canadian and UK researchers could soon have greater access to big science facilities in each other’s countries as part of a larger effort to jointly fund research infrastructure.

The first step to bolster bilateral collaboration came November 3, when the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council announced plans to share information on the CFI’s Research Facilities Navigator and the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Infrastructure Portal, their respective research infrastructure portals.

This is the first formal collaboration between the CFI and STFC. While COVID-19 currently makes it difficult for researchers to travel and use research equipment in different countries, CFI CEO Dr. Roseann O’Reilly Runte tells Research Money the portals are a valuable resource for knowledge exchange.

“We've been talking about how those two systems could be melded so that you could find out, for example...if you're working in Canada, and find out somebody in England is doing your research, [you could] work with them,” she says.

O’Reilly Runte says UK researchers and companies are among the top five that consult the CFI site for information. “We know 20% of the big projects that we fund include researchers from the UK on the team, so there's already a base of interest,” she says.

The next steps in the five-year partnership will see CFI and STFC pursue joint funding of research infrastructure and support for access to these infrastructures in the UK and Canada, and in other countries where Canada and the UK have shared interests. In January and February, CFI, MITACs and the UKRI will conduct joint sessions with French research councils to identify collaborations in areas such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

Some collaborations have already begun. On November 6, UKRI announced the funding recipients of a joint quantum technologies competition with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). It represents the first industry-led partnership between any two countries to develop quantum technologies.

Building on longstanding research linkages

Canada and the UK have long had common research interests — such as cleantech, artificial intelligence and aerospace — and these recent announcements reflect an effort to turn informal collaborations into formal initiatives that accelerate scientific discovery for both countries.

The UK is Canada’s third most important science and research partner in terms of co-publications, says O’Reilly Runte.

NSERC’s VP of research partnerships Marc Fortin says that type of complementarity is essential as the research community delves deeper into complex sciences like quantum.

“It's becoming more apparent with the COVID situation that one research group will have a piece of knowledge, the other will have a piece of technology, and we need to bring all these efforts together to generate impact.”

Canada and the UK also have comparable research systems, which Fortin says makes it easier to work across the two countries. “[There is] a strong foundation of peer review in both countries, and we put in place similar mechanisms to ensure that our funding goes to the best science.”

These announcements build on a memorandum of understanding the UK and Canada signed in 2017. The MoU promised concrete action on science, technology and entrepreneurship collaboration.

In 2019, The Canada Research Coordinating Committee (CRCC) and UKRI signed a letter of understanding outlining a framework for joint research, including a single peer review process for joint Canada–UK projects and a promise to build links between agencies and departments.

O’Reilly Runte says more international outreach beyond the UK is part of the CFI’s strategic plan, and international collaboration is also a priority for NSERC.

Fortin says the agency is developing a funding program to support more international collaborations. He declined to share specific details but said an announcement should come in the next few months.

“We punch above our weight in terms of science, but nevertheless, we are a modest-sized country and we need to connect with international researchers,” Fortin says.


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