Applicants troubled by high demand for inaugural New Frontiers Fund competition

A tweet by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) sparked a flurry of angry responses online last week, when the granting agency announced that it had received over 1700 notices of intent (NOIs) to apply for funding through the inaugural competition of the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF). SSHRC typically receives several thousand applications across all its funding programs in a given year, so this number of NOIs far exceeds the norm for a single competition. “It was certainly more than we expected,” said SSHRC president Ted Hewitt in a phone conversation with RE$EARCH MONEY.

According to the guidelines for the first competition under the NFRF’s Explorations theme, which seeks to support interdisciplinary and “high risk, high reward” research by early career researchers (ECRs), a minimum of 75 applications will be funded. Calculated from 1700 applicants, that gives a base success rate of just 4.4%. (Successful applicants are eligible to receive up to $125,000 per year for two years, including indirect costs.) Several researchers on Twitter expressed their frustration with a rushed process that felt to them like a lottery.

Dr. Joanna Wilson, who researches aquatic toxicology at McMaster University, decried the SSHRC tweet: “Can you be a bit more tone deaf? Thrilled at super low success rate after forcing ECRs to work through Winter break to meet the Early Jan deadline? So granting agencies get holidays, ECRs don’t. They have kids, families, deserve time off. the reward for this work? 96% get nada.”

Despite consternation among applicants anticipating poor odds of success, the deluge of NOIs for this competition seems to validate one of the primary rationales for the NFRF, to provide better opportunities for under-supported ECRs. Hewitt says that the large number of applicants confirms that the NFRF is meeting a genuine demand that was previously unmet: to better serve ECRs seeking to do “out-of-the-box” research.

To those who are frustrated by the presumed low success rate for the first Explorations competition, Hewitt stresses that the NFRF is an ongoing program. “This isn’t a one-time thing,” he says. He points out that the NFRF will have $65 million a year on an ongoing basis, and that number could double within three or four years, once funds transfer over from the Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) program that NFRF replaced.

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Hewitt also suggests that the number of applicants for future NFRF competitions could go down, as program administrators and applicants alike gain a better understanding of what really counts as high-risk interdisciplinary research. “What we’re trying to attract here are proposals that are different than what might normally be funded through the councils,” says Hewitt. Some of the proposals will be more suited for funding from other existing programs at SSHRC, NSERC or CIHR, which together offer nearly $3 billion in programming, Hewitt says. “We’re going to know that once we’ve finished reviewing them and we’ll make adjustments and corrections and will amplify some of the information we’ve been providing to stress that this fund is truly for things that cross boundaries.”

Hewitt also indicates that there will be additional opportunities for ECRs in the coming years, apart from NFRF and within the normal programming of the tri-council granting agencies: “We’re looking at a situation where there will only be increasing opportunities for ECRs across the board.”