NSERC to fast-track grant approvals after COVID-19 rapid-response programs pay off
July 14, 2021
Ottawa plans to fast-track smaller grant approvals in multiple research areas based on the success of two COVID-19 quick-response research funding programs, Research Money has learned.
“[Rapid-response funding] would be available to more fields of study in the natural sciences and engineering disciplines,” Dr. Marc Fortin, PhD, vice-president of research and partnerships for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) told Research Money in an interview.
In 2020, NSERC introduced a pair of one-year COVID-19 research programs for universities, colleges and polytechnics to accelerate COVID-19-related research and development (R&D) partnerships with the public and not-for-profit sectors and industry.
Fortin said NSERC is in the process of replicating the COVID-19 rapid-response funding model in the context of a crisis like COVID-19 or other national priorities, such as climate change and decarbonization, that can be shared with the research community.
The aim is to engage academics in new R&D projects — which may lead to longer studies and additional grants — with partners in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors who can develop “real-world” solutions to challenges. The council plans to roll out its new rapid-response grants within the next year.
“This [COVID-19 research experience] was a good lesson,” said Fortin.
This marked the first time that NSERC issued rapid-response funding, he added. The smaller-grant adjudication process has already been reduced to four to six weeks.
“It’s much more rapid than it used to be with the [programs] pre-COVID,” said Fortin. “We had started some streamlining but, certainly, the experience with the quick-response programs showed us that we can greatly accelerate a lot of processes.”
According to NSERC’s website, the COVID-19 Alliance program provided $15.69 million to 317 one-year coronavirus research projects to stimulate collaborations between academic researchers and public, not-for-profit and industry partners, and the development of solutions to pandemic-related challenges.
Each university received a maximum of $50,000. Under the College and Community Innovation program, NSERC, the program’s administrator, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council together gave an additional $3.78 million to colleges and polytechnics, with each of the 52 projects receiving up to $75,000.
The programs, which began in June 2020 and ran for one year, are not slated to continue. But Fortin said participants looking to expand on positive results can apply for considerably more dollars through NSERC’s regular Alliance program or the council’s other research-grant offerings.
University of Victoria professor emeritus Terry Pearson, PhD, who participated in the COVID-19 Alliance program as an industry partner, hoped the programs would continue. An Alliance grant supported a collaboration between Pearson’s company Vancouver Island Antibodies and University of Victoria biochemistry professor Caroline Cameron, which helped to develop a COVID-19 reagent — a necessity for testing kits — within five months.
Pearson said COVID-19 is no longer in the forefront, but there is still work to do to better understand the disease and treatment options.
“NSERC would be beautifully situated to do something like that rapid-response grant that would allow people to pick small parts of COVID and work on them and understand them,” he said.
“The reason I say that this is a good thing to do is not that COVID 19 is going to rear its head again. It might — but there are other infectious-disease pandemics coming, and the principles we learn [now] are going to be similar.”