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Researchers scramble to meet deadline for New Frontiers research fund

Final applications are due February 7, just weeks after inaugural competition was launched.

By BRIAN OWENS | JAN 15 2019

While many Canadian academics were enjoying a bit of time off over the holidays, some early-career researchers were scrambling to put together applications for the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF), the new funding program designed to support risky interdisciplinary research.

The NFRF was first announced last spring in the 2018 federal budget, with investments of $275 million over five years and $65 million per year ongoing intended to support research that is “international, interdisciplinary, fast-breaking and high-risk.”

“The fund was designed to offer a different kind of opportunity than what might be found through the regular tri-council offerings, and in particular to look for proposals that wouldn’t otherwise be funded,” said Ted Hewitt, president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and chairman of the Canada Research Coordinating Committee, the body that designed the fund following a national consultation.

The inaugural competition for this funding stream, called “Exploration” was launched on December 6 and is focused on early-career researchers. It will support at least 75 grants of up to $125,000 per year over two years. The competitions for the two other streams – “Transformation” focused on larger projects, and “International” focused on providing opportunities for Canadian researchers to take part in international projects – will be announced this coming spring.

“We wanted to focus on early-career researchers right out of the gate because we felt that’s where much of the demand lay, and where much of the energy lies to explore new and different and more complex research,” said Dr. Hewitt.

But some researchers who are planning to apply are unhappy with how the program was rolled out, citing a lack of clarity about what reviewers will be looking for and the extremely tight deadlines over a holiday period. A letter of intent to apply was due on January 11 and the final application deadline is February 7.

Figuring out what counts as “interdisciplinary” is the hardest part, said Loren Martin, a behavioural neuroscientist and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. He is planning to merge neuroscience with physics and chemistry in a new imaging technique to study migraines. “This is what we view as interdisciplinary, but we’re not really sure whether the review panel will think it is interdisciplinary enough,” he said.

Finding interdisciplinary collaborators on such a tight deadline is also an issue, said Gareth Lim, a diabetes researcher at the Université de Montréal hospital research centre (Centre de recherche du Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal). “Early-career researchers don’t have a Rolodex, we’re not connected that well yet,” he said. “Finding a co-applicant over the holidays is tricky. We don’t want to burden our colleagues.”

And the short funding window – just two years – doesn’t leave much time to get the research done. “I think most researchers would happily take the same amount of money spread over three years,” said Dr. Lim. “This is especially important for job security of staff.”

When the detailed application guidelines were posted on January 11, some researchers said they were surprised to see how little space was allowed for describing the actual research – just one and half pages out of a maximum five-pages; additionally, one page is reserved for describing how the work would be “high-risk” and another for why it would be “high-reward.”

“How can the feasibility and excellence of the research be evaluated with no details at all?,” asked Andrew Roger, a molecular biologist at Dalhousie University, on Twitter.

 

Dr. Hewitt said some of the vagueness of the call for proposals is intentional. “The first call is meant to be pretty exploratory. It’s hard to describe what we’re looking for when we’re not too sure ourselves,” he said. But, he added that the call for applications will be repeated regularly, and applicants will have a better idea of what kinds of proposals will be successful in future rounds.

Although both Drs. Martin and Lim say they would prefer that the money be put into regular tri-council grants, they intend to apply anyway because the current funding landscape means you can’t pass up any opportunity. “People’s jobs are on the line. If I don’t have enough funding, two postdocs will be looking for new positions come spring,” said Dr. Martin. “I have to explore every opportunity.”

Many researchers were also surprised to learn that the creation of the NFRF would result in the end of the long-running Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) program, which provides funds to connect researchers across Canada in areas including stem cells and Arctic research. The networks will be phased out over the next three years. That decision was not mentioned in the budget; it was taken by the research coordinating committee.

Sammantha Yammine, a PhD candidate in stem cell biology and neuroscience at the University of Toronto, said the loss of the Stem Cell Network, one of the groups funded through the NCE program, “is very scary for the future of stem cell research in Canada.” She said she has “benefitted enormously” from the training and networking opportunities provided by the Stem Cell Network, both the technical skills as well as softer skills like ethics, law and policy that are often not provided by universities. She said she fears future trainees will miss out on those opportunities.

Ms. Yammine is working with the network to create an online campaign using the hashtag #WeAreStemCells to highlight success stories about the network in the hopes of gaining a reprieve from policymakers.

Dr. Hewitt, meanwhile, said there is always “plenty of ebb and flow” in funding programs as government priorities change. “The NCEs have made a significant contribution, but we’re entering a new period which involves a rethinking of the kinds of research that needs to get funded,” he said. “There is now a lot more money on the table and lot of the things that were done in programs like the NCEs will still be done in the context of some of these new offerings.”

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