Indigenous solutions for conserving nature while promoting health; machines for preserving organs donated for transplants; strategies for turning discarded ocean byproducts into opportunities for coastal communities. All involve diverse and complex challenges that have one thing in common: They fell through the cracks of Canada’s long-established research funding system – until now.
Now all three are among the projects receiving federal support following a funding competition that prioritized multidisciplinary, Indigenous-led and internationally collaborative research, categories that had previously been identified as areas of weakness in Ottawa’s science support apparatus.
In total, seven projects will receive $144-million over the next six years under the government’s New Frontiers in Research Fund, following a two-year selection process that initially drew more than 300 proposals. Other awardees include a project aimed at redesigning workplaces to improve accessibility; another that hopes to use DNA sequencing to monitor global biodiversity; an initiative to grow neural fibres for spinal cord repair; and one that proposes developing protective coating to extend the lifespan of metal surfaces on bridges, vehicles and power lines.
Ted Hewitt, president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), which administered the competition on behalf of a cross-agency co-ordinating committee, said the goal of the funding call was to promote ideas that would be “fundamentally transformative” and to encourage researchers to work across academic and funding boundaries in ways they hadn’t before.
“People came up with some pretty amazing stuff,” he said. “That’s why the projects tend to go straight across the entire array of topics and subjects.”
The successful projects were unveiled on Wednesday by federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry François-Philippe Champagne during a virtual press event. Additional support was also announced for 188 new or renewed Canada Research Chairs as well as related infrastructure and individual scholarships and awards to more than 5,000 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.
Featured prominently among the winning projects was a multi-institution proposal to support Indigenous-led work to stem biodiversity loss while maintaining the health and well-being of communities that are physically and culturally tied to the land. More than half of the $24-million the project is intended to go directly to Indigenous governments and organizations that will lead their own work, project team members said.
“We don’t just want Indigenous peoples at the table, we actually want to reconstruct the table,” said Danika Littlechild, an assistant professor of legal studies at Carleton University in Ottawa and a co-leader of the project.
The project is based on the link between environmental and human health, a growing focus of global conservation efforts. It will tackle a wide range of social and environmental issues from food security to Indigenous practices that support species. It will also foster international collaboration with groups in Peru, Russia, Uganda and elsewhere to help “scale-up” knowledge about conservation problems and solutions, said Brenda Parlee, an environmental sociologist at the University of Alberta who is also a co-leader on the project.
“The scale of the project is unique, as is the opportunity to support work in regions and for peoples who typically have no access to research funding,” Dr. Parlee added.
At the other end of the spectrum is a project led by the University Health Network at the University of Toronto to improve the preservation of organs for successful transplants. The project will build on previous successes, including the development of machines for maintaining lungs at body temperature while they are assessed for transplants, and will seek to extend the technology to systems for the liver, kidney, pancreas and heart.
Dominique Bérubé, vice-president of research at SSHRC, said the project was an example of the kind of high-risk, high-reward science that would be a challenge to support through the usual federal funding streams and timelines because of its size and the required combination of expertise.
“It was very obvious from the evaluation that there was no other way we could have funded that in Canada,” she said. “And if we can’t fund that project, it’s going to go somewhere else.”
The sentiment echoes the findings of the 2018 federal science review led by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, which identified gaps in Canada’s research landscape at the boundaries of social, medical and non-medical natural and engineering sciences, which are funded by separate agencies in Canada on a schedule that can inhibit collaboration with international colleagues.
The report also recommended that the government develop mechanisms for supporting high-risk, multidisciplinary projects with a rapid response and address disparities in the research funding system that tend to disadvantage early career and Indigenous research.
Dr. Hewitt said that the newly funded projects would be monitored and assessed over their life to see if the approach produced the desired results, but he added that, from the perspective of getting researchers and project reviewers to think differently, “this is a success.”
Another focus of the fund is research that is relevant to community priorities.
Raymond Thomas, a biologist at Memorial University in Newfoundland whose work on lipids spans environmental, agricultural and health sciences, said that the $14.9-million his project will receive through the federal fund will enable him to work with Indigenous and coastal communities on a range of approaches for repurposing byproducts from marine harvesting, including unused waste from fish, crab, mussels, shrimp and seaweed, most of which currently ends up in landfills or is tossed back into the sea.
“We want to diversify the marine industry ... so that it’s more sustainable, more resilient and so that these communities will have more assets.”
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