May 4, 2021

Powering Discovery

The Expert Panel on International Practices for Funding Natural Science and Engineering Research

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Discoveries in science and engineering shape the world we live in, underpinning the technologies we use in our daily lives and helping to address major social challenges. The impacts of fundamental research are often unpredictable – emerging years or decades later to play a crucial role in unexpected ways, such as the curiosity-driven research that made development of the novel mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines possible.

Natural science and engineering (NSE) funding organizations perform a vital function by channeling public investments into new discoveries and research addressing current and future societal needs. However, these funders also face formidable challenges as they attempt to respond to diverse and changing demands with limited resources. New ways of working, communicating, and collaborating and shifting social, economic, and geopolitical landscapes are pushing both researchers and funding agencies to adapt.

Powering Discovery examines successful international practices for supporting natural sciences and engineering research and how some of these could be applied in Canada. The report explores approaches for supporting researchers and a wide spectrum of research. It also sheds light on promising and novel approaches for increasing funding efficiency and promoting and measuring impact.

The Sponsor:

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)

The Question:

What is known about successful practices for funding natural science and engineering (NSE) research internationally, and how could such practices be applied to funding for NSE research in Canada?

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Drawing on published evidence and input from research funding experts in several jurisdictions (notably Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States), the Panel explored funding practices related to improving support for research in various ways, including: supporting researchers across their careers; enhancing equity, diversity, and inclusion in the research community; supporting interdisciplinary and high-risk research; fostering research flexibility; and improving research funding efficiency and impact.

Report Findings

  • Concerns about heightened competition for funding are increasing in many countries as government research and development (R&D) spending fails to keep pace with growing researcher populations and needed investments.
  • In a changing social and scientific landscape, research funding agencies are becoming more active as promoters of scientific norms and practices.
  • Cultivating a robust, resilient, and diverse scientific workforce is central to the development of a nation’s research capacity and requires supporting researchers throughout their careers.
  • Innovations in application and review processes, such as longer grants and expanded support for collaboration, can benefit interdisciplinary and high-risk research.
  • Enhancing the efficiency of funding processes, and supporting efforts to catalyze a broad range of impacts, helps funders better leverage their resources.
  • NSE funding practices are context dependent; adapting practices from abroad requires carefully tailoring them to Canada’s diverse funding environment.
  • More experimentation with alternative funding practices, alongside data sharing and rigorous evaluations, could provide funders with a better understanding of their options.



Expert Panel

The Expert Panel on International Practices for Funding Natural Science and Engineering Research