NSERC’s Discovery Grants Program gives a boost to early-career researchers

Lindsay Borthwick
October 31, 2018

The new funding for basic research announced in Budget 2018 is beginning to flow to the scientific community, with early-career researchers receiving a boost from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

Earlier this month, NSERC announced more than $558 million in awards for nearly 4,300 researchers and students, the largest investment in research from the agency this year and a $44 million increase over 2017.

A portion of that new funding went to NSERC’s 2018 Discovery Grants Program (DGP) competition, which is intended to provide Canadian researchers with sustained support for up to five years. In addition to research grants and supplements, the new awards include scholarships and fellowships, and funding for research tools and instruments.

The federal funding agencies, including NSERC, had been anticipating an injection of new funding into basic science since the Trudeau government was elected in 2015. That funding came in last year’s budget, largely in response to Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, which made a series of budgetary and non-budgetary recommendations to strengthen Canadian science. Among them, the review urged a $1.3-billion increase in the budgets of the three granting councils, the Canada Foundation for Innovation and related entities over four years. Instead, the federal government proposed to invest $925 million over five years, starting in FY2018-2019.

With the new funds committed in Budget 2018, NSERC is providing early-career researchers (ECRs) with a supplement of $12,500 in the first year of their grants, which amounts to $5.41 million in new spending. The agency is also increasing the size of the average grant to ECRs and established researchers (ERs) by approximately $5,000 per year.

The latter change may appear modest, but it is just the beginning of a multi-year increase, according to Pierre Charest, Vice-President, Research Grants and Scholarships Directorate at NSERC.

“We’re going to keep adding money. At the end of five years, the size of grants [to individual researchers] funded through the Discovery Grants Program will have increased by 20 percent,” he said in an interview with RE$EARCH MONEY.

Funding levels vary based on how grants are rated during the review process, but in 2017, the average grant to ECRs was approximately $25,000. ERs received approximately $34,000 per year.

This boost will help address the issue of underfunding. According to a 2017 study, support for fundamental research in the natural sciences and engineering fell by 36% in Canada between 2005 and 2015.

Future focus on increasing diversity

As NSERC’s budget rises over the next four years to reach a steady-state of $90.1 million in additional funding annually, the agency is looking at ways to increase gender equity, diversity and inclusion in the natural sciences and engineering—key priorities in its strategic plan, NSERC 2020.

As in previous years, success rates were similar among male and female applicants in the 2018 DGP competition. (For example, in 2017, 66% of female applicants and 67% of male applicants were funded.) However, addressing the under-representation of women in science and engineering in Canada continues to be an urgent issue. Charest said there may be ways the agency can better support female researchers, such as providing research supplements at critical stages of their careers.

NSERC is also considering ways to achieve greater diversity among funding recipients by improving support to small-sized universities. An independent analysis of the DGP competition in 2016 suggested smaller universities fared poorly in comparison to medium- and large-sized universities. Specifically, success rates were lower among researchers from small-sized universities compared with medium- and large-sized universities, as were the mean monetary value of awards.

To address these gaps, NSERC started a pilot program in 2015 that offers 2-year grants of $10,000 per year to researchers from small-sized universities whose applications were well-rated but unfunded. Those grants have increased to $15,000 per year, but in light of its budget increase the agency is reviewing the pilot program and considering how else to support research excellence at universities—big and small.

NSERC Awards Results

(Total Value in millions $)

2017 2018
Discovery Grants 353.3 403.6
Discovery Accelerator Supplements 15.0 15.0
Discovery Development Grants 1.1 0.9
Research Tools and Instrument Grants 36.5 25.1
Ship Time Program and Northern Research Supplements - 3.1
Subatomic Physics projects and research tools 23.4 26.4
Alexander Graham Bell Canada Graduate Scholarships

Master's Level

14.0 14.0
Alexander Graham Bell Canada Graduate Scholarships

Doctoral Level

31.9 27.6
NSERC Postgraduate Scholarships 22.2 27.8
Postdoctoral Fellowships 17.9 15.1
Total 515.2 558.6



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