NSERC considers "new possibilities" in responding to COVID-19 crisis

Lindsay Borthwick
May 6, 2020

Canada’s research funders were quick to react to the COVID-19 pandemic. That pace hasn’t slowed, according to Dr. Marc Fortin (PhD), VP of Research Partnership at the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). He said the agency has done things “we never thought were possible” as it moves to address the research community’s evolving needs.

In a move that sets it apart from other funders, NSERC introduced an optional one-year extension—with funding—to researchers who hold a Discovery Grant, the agency’s flagship program. And, in the span of two weeks, it launched a rapid-response program to support COVID-19-related research.

“The teams have been working extremely hard to support the research enterprise writ large in these challenging times,” Fortin told Research Money.

He stressed that the agency’s interventions have been designed to stabilize research labs and personnel: “We want to make sure that coming out of the crisis, we still have those folks engaged in research and innovation.”

Flagship funding extended

In April, NSERC awarded its annual Discovery Grants to researchers across Canada, bringing the total number of researchers currently funded through the program to more than 10,000. All active Discovery Grants, including those from the 2020 competition, are now eligible for an extension at current funding levels.

“The one-year fully funded extension for Discovery Grants is a huge step forward,” said Dr. Danika Goosney (PhD), NSERC’s VP, Research Grants and Scholarships Directorate, during the same interview. “In fact, I don't think there are many countries that have taken this approach.”

Though next year’s competition is still a long way off, Goosney said the team is working to ensure there will be no delays. They are also adapting the program’s guidance to reviewers, acknowledging that laboratory closures as a result of COVID-19 could have a major impact on applicants’ science. “We recognize that this gap is hard on a lot of people. Some have lost data sets, instruments, and much else,” she said. “That needs to be taken into account.”

COVID rapid response opportunities

As part of its COVID-19 response, NSERC launched the COVID Alliance Grants, a $15-million program to support collaborations that address pandemic-related research and technical challenges, such as computational modeling and simulation, new technologies, and design and engineering expertise in advanced manufacturing. One-year grants for up to $50,000 are available to university researchers working in partnership with the public, not-for-profit or private sectors.

To date, NSERC has received 135 applications and funded 22, including one focused on advanced sterile process for COVID-19 PPE and another on using artificial intelligence to predict COVID-19 impacts on the healthcare system. Approximately 300 more are in preparation, said Fortin. Review time is typically within a week, though one application was processed in 30 hours.

According to Fortin, more than a dozen companies have already come forward with a COVID-19-related challenge and are working with NSERC to identify an academic partner. (Project opportunities, such as a medical device manufacturer looking for expertise in engineering and wearable sensing technology, are listed online.)

“These rapid-response grants are connecting the tremendous academic expertise in which we've invested in for so long, through the Discovery and other grant programs, with urgent needs across the country. Now we're saying, if you have something to contribute to COVID, there's a grant. Just go for it,” said Fortin.

NSERC is also administering a similar, tri-agency program for colleges and polytechnics; funding for each Applied Research Rapid Response to COVID-19 grant is up to $75,000 for one year.

Future directions

NSERC, along with the other federal granting councils, is also working on how to implement $291.6 million in funding announced April 22 by the federal government to support research personnel by extending graduate scholarships and post-doctoral fellows.

When asked about the challenges that lie ahead, Fortin said the agency will adapt new measures as problems arise and is already working on some, though it is too early to share the details. “It’s a very dynamic situation and I think we’ll keep being receptive to what the community tells us,” he said.

Goosney said the pandemic has already changed how the agency works, perhaps permanently: “I think it [COVID-19] has opened up some new possibilities for us to be a little bit more innovative in how we do things. As an agency that funds research and innovation, we should be embracing that wholeheartedly.”

Just as COVID-19 is driving research funders to be more flexible, agile and perhaps even more innovative, it is also exposing the system’s strengths and weaknesses. One of those is its connectivity, said Fortin, which is uniting people from across the research ecosystem together to respond to the COVID-19 crisis today and also to national priorities and challenges beyond the pandemic.

But, he said, connectivity also presents a challenge. Organizations like NSERC, the National Research Council’s Industry Research Assistance Program, regional development agencies and others have largely operated separately.

"Can we generate more impact out of that investment by connecting the dots?," Fortin asked. "Every year will bring a different sets of challenges. How do we build that connectivity in the system to make sure that those investments in fundamental research can translate into impact more rapidly?"


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