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Agencies from 12 countries to streamline international research funding

By NATALIE SAMSON | SEP 09 2015

Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council is spearheading a project to streamline the path to international research funding. The Trans-Atlantic Platform is a consortium of 17 funding agencies from 12 countries, backed by the European Commission and co-led by SSHRC and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). Its mission is to facilitate international research collaboration by simplifying the way researchers secure funding both here and abroad.

“In Canada, if you do international work, getting funds to support this has never been easy,” said Ted Hewitt, SSHRC president and chair of the T-AP steering committee. “You can apply to the granting councils and you can get money to travel – I did that myself [as a researcher].”

“You can apply to IDRC [International Development Research Centre] if you have a partner in another country, or you can apply to a foreign source of funding – but even at that it’s pretty lean.”

The proof is in the paucity of money from foreign funding bodies flowing through Canadian universities today, Dr. Hewitt added. The average medium-sized, research-intensive university with a research budget of about $240 million can expect international funding to comprise roughly one or two percent of that budget (about $2 million to $3 million). He estimated the number of Canadian research dollars going to foreign institutions is roughly proportional to what’s coming in.

The centralized funding model that T-AP is developing likely will be rolled out in a pilot program in the spring of 2016. The pilot will build off the processes that underpinned the Digging into Data Challenge [DiD], a grant program sponsored by 10 funding agencies (including SSHRC and NWO) from four countries. That project supported some 36 international collaborations through competitions in 2009, 2011 and 2013

Under this model each partner agency committed a certain amount of money to a “virtual pool.” A call went out to researchers to submit proposals for research projects involving large digital data sets and involving a strong international collaboration component. Submissions went through the peer-review process and applicants received a single response from the 10 challenge partners.

Christopher Cochrane, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, was among the beneficiaries of the DiD program. With nearly $450,000 of funding over two years and a 12-person transnational interdisciplinary research team, he led a large-scale analysis of parliamentary proceedings from Canada, the U.K. and the Netherlands dating back to the 1800s.

“I couldn’t imagine that they could make it easier to do an international collaboration,” Dr. Cochrane said. The team entered a single proposal along with a standard CV for each of the investigators to one submission platform. After receiving the centralized notice of acceptance, the money was distributed to team members by their respective national funding agencies. Any concerns or questions (like how to receive the peer-review feedback) went to the researchers’ local agency liaison officers, who would coordinate the response. “Everything has been seamless,” Dr. Cochrane said.

T-AP has yet to confirm which of the 17 partners will participate in the pilot (or if any additional partners will join on before launch), although organizers anticipate their research fund will reach between $10 million and $15 million once all funders have signed on. And, as with DiD, the pilot will focus on digital scholarship projects.

Though researchers will have to wait a year for the pilot to begin, T-AP is already thinking beyond it. In June, the consortium hosted community consultation workshops at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Ottawa. The workshops invited T-AP partners and about 30 international academics to discuss gaps in scholarship on three themes the consortium has identified as priority research areas: diversity, (in)equality and differences; new pathways to research on the environment; and resilient and innovative societies. The idea is that once the funders have figured out the funding model, they’ll be able to hit the ground running on the next targeted funding programs.

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