Strength in Numbers: How Canada’s federal granting agencies joined forces in the response to COVID-19

Strength in Numbers How Canada’s federal granting agencies joined forces in the response to COVID-19 Alejandro Adem President of the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Ted Hewitt President of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), Dr. Roseann O’Reilly Runte President and CEO of the Canada Foundation of Innovation (CFI), Michael Strong President of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)

The COVID-19 pandemic and resultant lockdown have been difficult for Canadians, as these unprecedented events have created significant turmoil and uncertainty across our society.  Yet, amidst this upheaval, we have seen some positive stories emerge.  One of these stories involves the extraordinary response of Canada’s research community as well as the rapid collaboration amongst Canada’s research funders in the face of this crisis.  

Canada’s researchers dedicate their lives to answering critical social and scientific questions and to solving our problems, both big and small.  From societal concerns, to health issues, to technological solutions and beyond, researchers are now increasingly called upon to share their knowledge as all sectors look to them for answers and trust them to provide evidence-based solutions.  During times of crisis, as we are now seeing throughout the world, citizens also look to their governments for direction, support, and the resources needed to overcome challenges that arise.

Canada’s researchers have been exemplary throughout it all.  From the moment the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, researchers from across Canada immediately stepped up to assist in our country’s response.  From vaccine development and personal protective equipment manufacturing, to epidemiological tracking, mental health, and wellness guidance, researchers have been working tirelessly to meet the many challenges arising from the pandemic.  This included researchers from other fields who set aside their own work to contribute their expertise.  As just one of many examples, Dr. Art McDonald (winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics) switched from physics to engineering to help create an inexpensive and easy-to-use ventilator that is now under production in Canada.  Such ingenuity and dedication to improving the world are hallmarks of Canada’s researchers and we salute them all for their invaluable contributions.

In support of these Canada-wide efforts, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation also leapt to action to develop the programs and deliver the funding that our researchers needed to conduct their vital work.  Throughout this process, our organizations worked closely and in unison to integrate the broad perspectives and talents of our diverse research constituencies.  These collaborations led to greater harmonization of efforts and the ability to provide vast coverage of research support across multiple disciplines.

Importantly, Canada’s research community was able to access this funding support in record time.  In total, the Government of Canada’s rapid research response delivered $275 million to support researchers working on the front lines of the pandemic.  These research projects covered a broad array of areas and disciplines, ranging from medical research on the prevention, detection, and treatment of COVID-19, to research on the wide-ranging social and economic impacts of the pandemic.  Notably, the funding included support for the NSERC Alliance COVID and the Tri-agency Applied Research Rapid Response to COVID-19 grants (worth close to $20 million), as well as the creation of CanCOVID – a network developed to expedite communication and collaboration between the scientific, health care, and policy communities during the COVID-19 crisis. It also launched research projects to study how Canadians are understanding and adapting to the pandemic and how COVID-19 preparedness and response policies are being transmitted to, and implemented in, hospital and family health centres.

As the rapid response projects were initiated, attention was also being focussed on assisting the thousands of researchers who could no longer work due to university and research institution closures.  As with many Canadians, the lockdown placed great economic stress on the members of our research communities, and also put at risk many research projects and the years of effort that were invested in them.  For some laboratories, this also meant that the health and safety of animals was in jeopardy.  The Government of Canada addressed this need by providing $450 million to allow universities and research institutions to retain their staff and maintain essential research-related activities, as well as an additional $291 million to support trainees (including students and post-doctoral fellows) during the crisis.

All of this was done to safeguard the communities we serveserve, and we greatly appreciate the commitment and dedication of our respective teams who worked tirelessly to deliver these critically-needed funding sources.  While the past few months have been a strain on our organizations, we believe that these experiences have also brought us closer together and demonstrated the resilience and dedication of Canada’s public servants.  The pandemic has also demonstrated that there exist great synergies between intramural programs led by the Government of Canada (e.g., in the area of vaccine development) and similar programs that are being led by the academic community (e.g., the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force).  Looking to the future, it is important to continue to strengthen these relationships in an effort to maximize research output for the benefit of Canadians.

Of course, as learning organizations, we recognize that there is always room for improvement, and we are cognizant of the equity, diversity, and inclusion issues that have been laid bare as a result of COVID-19.  As just one example from the research community, we noted that the pandemic disproportionately affected researchers who are also caregivers.  Such concerns will be taken into account as we learn from this experience and strive to enhance our country’s research capacity and bolster its pandemic preparedness.  We will also ensure that we continue to take a multi-disciplinary approach – one that coalesces the disparate expertise of the entire research ecosystem.  This is the strength of a multi-agency approach.  It ensures the contributions of a diversity of ideas and disciplines and, in doing so, permits the development of more comprehensive strategies to address any emerging challenges that Canada may face in the future.

Canadians can take pride in knowing that their research community is playing a leadership role in the global effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 through the development of a vaccine, and to address its impacts on the economic and social resiliency of our communities.  While we continue to deal with this unprecedented crisis, we are also discovering opportunities for Canada’s federal granting agencies to more deeply integrate our work with other departments and agencies, as well as with partners throughout academia and other sectors.  Our commitment to these collaborations will further strengthen the quality of Canadian research and research talent and help to ensure that we, as a nation, are able to meet any challenges that may lie ahead.