Publicly-funded research presents a unique opportunity to address global challenges that can only be solved through collaboration. Thus, the Canadian research community applauded when the Advisory Panel on the Federal Research Support System was launched in October 2022 with a mandate to advise the Government of Canada on how to modernize the federal system supporting academic research. The Advisory Panel’s final report in March 2023 outlined 21 recommendations to enhance research excellence in Canada.
For our research team, one of the report’s opening messages hit close to home, namely, “In the Canadian context, existing funding issues are compounded by a support system that is not optimally designed to respond to multi- and interdisciplinary, collaborative and international approaches to research. As a result, we are not well positioned as a country to address the complex challenges that we are–and will be—facing.”
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, our group was successfully awarded a federally-funded Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. CREATE programs support the training of highly qualified students and postdoctoral fellows from Canada and abroad, and are specifically meant to encourage collaborative and integrative approaches, and address significant scientific challenges associated with Canada’s research priorities.
Our CREATE program – Leadership in Environmental and Digital Innovation for Sustainability (LEADS) – focuses on interdisciplinary education at the interface of sustainability science and digital technologies. Led out of Concordia University in partnership with Future Earth Canada, Sustainability in the Digital Age, and the three other major universities in Montreal, LEADS mobilizes scientific understanding of the current sustainability crisis from multiple disciplinary perspectives and identifies opportunities for digital technologies to accelerate transitions to sustainability. LEADS promotes critical thinking, alongside key leadership competencies such as empathy and storytelling, that are becoming increasingly important as individuals and organizations seek to navigate the challenges and opportunities presented by the rapidly evolving landscape of digital innovation and sustainability.
One of the key assets of LEADS (as well as several other NSERC-CREATE programs) is that the interdisciplinarity of the program staff, students and research themes drives innovation and creativity within the programs. Connecting both faculty and students across disciplines fosters collaboration on the ground, leading to research advances that help address some of the most pressing challenges facing society today.
For example, LEADS staff and students boast backgrounds as diverse as computer science, ecology, physics, sociology, and fine arts. Training activities like the LEADS summer school and work placement internships provide hands-on cross-disciplinary experience with topics ranging from sustainability and social justice to machine learning, coding, and climate change.
The NSERC CREATE program provides funds for six years of operations, in support of both student stipends and program activities. Combined with institutional support from Concordia, we have been able to support program staff, refine research themes, scale-up student cohorts and internships, and create lasting collaborations among staff and students. However, we are finding that the given funding and timeline is often not adequate to overcome some key challenges that are encountered with such highly interdisciplinary programs. These include integrating conflicting perspectives from different disciplines, navigating traditional versus emerging teaching models and tools (like virtual reality, chatGPT and more), and ultimately finding funding to continue growing the many novel ideas that emerge from CREATE programs. We have heard similar challenges being experienced by other CREATE programs and we will be convening some CREATE directors in autumn 2023 to discuss such issues and best practices.
Related to this critical point, the Federal Advisory Panel also “heard that interdisciplinary researchers, or researchers who operate near the boundaries of disciplines or across disciplines struggle with the existing funding mechanisms as programs to support multi- and interdisciplinary research are still administered within the context of the disciplinary councils.” Further, even for the major Tri-Council programs that do exist, “success rates [for Interdisciplinary work] are low and scaling up successful new initiatives is challenging.” As such the Panel recommends that a new governance mechanism be created, the Canadian Knowledge and Science Foundation (CKSF), with part of its role to support strategic, mission-driven, multi- and interdisciplinary, intersectoral, urgent, and high risk/high reward research initiatives as well as “to support other true intersectoral research initiatives.”
Interdisciplinary education and research programs by design fall outside of traditional educational disciplines. As such, they often require new institutional structures to ensure their successful delivery and long-term viability. This is where academic boundary organizations – those that act as a bridge between traditional academic institutions and key communities outside of academia – can play an essential role in scaling up the societal impact of interdisciplinary education.
In the case of the LEADS program, we have established just such a boundary organization. Sustainability in the Digital Age (SDA) was formally established as a Concordia University Think Tank in November of 2022. SDA provides a critical institutional structure for the LEADS program, while also promoting research and policy insights at the interface of digitalization and sustainability. For the LEADS program, this has been a critical step towards long-term sustainability, but has required funding and investment far beyond what was available from the NSERC-CREATE program budget.
We argue for the need for more federal investment in academic boundary organizations like Sustainability in the Digital Age, to strengthen and ultimately continue the work that is often begun through funding programs such as NSERC-CREATE. Such boundary organizations are essential to support interdisciplinary education programs and to amplify the reach of the research and collaborations they produce. Both roles are urgently needed to advance science-based solutions to the complex social and environmental challenges that the world faces today.
In the words of the Federal Advisory Panel, “Canada has immense potential to lead the world into a more prosperous, just, and sustainable future through our knowledge and talent advantage, but we must double down on our efforts if we aspire to be among the global leaders.” Increasing support for truly interdisciplinary efforts and boundary organizations that translate research into action, will help us double down and drive Canada to thrive at home and on the world stage.
Acknowledgement: The authors would like to acknowledge LEADS student, Laetitia Pfeffer for her contribution to background research for this article.
Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. 2023. Report of the Advisory Panel on the Federal Research Support System.