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Canada transitioning university-industry R&D support

January 03, 2019

University-based centers to support collaborative research with industry have been a mainstay of federal competitiveness policies for decades.  Government commitments of multiyear, multimillion dollar funding are thought to provide lab/institutional stability and industry confidence for engagement in longer-term joint research projects. Canada’s Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) program was established in 1989, and, on the eve of the program’s 30th anniversary, the Government of Canada has announced the program is to be replaced with a new initiative focused on smaller, individual research projects of potentially higher risk and greater timeliness.

The New Frontiers in Research Fund, seeded with $275 million over five years, will provide up to $125,000 (including indirect costs) to a minimum of 75 projects in its inaugural solicitation for proposals, which closes Feb. 7, 2019. Awards will focus on early career researchers conducting “high-risk, high-reward and interdisciplinary research not available through funding opportunities currently offered by the three agencies (the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council).”

The New Frontier’s announcement further describes the program’s purpose as seeking “to inspire highly innovative projects that defy current research paradigms, propose a unique scientific direction, bring disciplines together beyond the traditional disciplinary approaches, and/or use different perspectives to solve existing problems.”

What will happen to the existing NCE program? While the number of active networks has varied over the three decades of the program, there are currently 36 extant centers at the time of the announcement.  The range of their lifespans and government support is substantial. For example, the largest and oldest center is ArcticNet. First funded in 2003, the center focuses on sustainable prosperity in the Arctic, one of the regions globally experiencing the most rapid alterations from climate change.  ArcticNet has 279 partners and has received $113 million over the past 16 years from the federal government, which in turn has been matched by $250 million from the partners.

The three networks for cancer biotherapeutics, cardiac arrhythmia and glycomics, each only five years old, have received $25-28 million each. They have collectively gathered more partners than ArcticNet, 433, but with much less matching commitments, $53.0 million.

The NCE program will see a gradual closure, taking up to five years, as the Canadian government promises to make full five-year, non-renewing awards to applicants to be selected from the current centers competition. Existing early-stage centers may compete for one-time, three-year renewal grants, while more mature centers, such as the four mentioned above, will likely be funded only through the end of their current grant periods.

canada, research, r&d