By Dr. Alejandro Adem
Science has a thoroughly global focus, exists within an interdisciplinary intellectual environment, and succeeds through collaborative work that reaches across borders, oceans, and time zones. Indeed, the multi-national, multi-disciplinary and inclusive character of 21st century research mirrors the most formidable challenges of our era, from global pandemics, such as the one we’ve all experienced since 2020, to climate change.
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) is an active member of the Global Research Council, which includes the heads of science and engineering funding agencies from around the world. As NSERC’s President, I have had the privilege of not only witnessing the benefits that come from international collaborations, but also the growing recognition among our peer organizations that such partnerships represent the foundation of research excellence in the 21st century.
The extraordinary global research response to COVID-19, in fact, clearly demonstrated the immense potential of large-scale data sharing, international teams and multi-site clinical trials. These far-flung projects are undoubtably intricate in their management and execution. But the outcomes not only shed light on the most complicated questions of our time, they are equipping us with the tools to translate and then commercialize those insights into technologies that will help us confront global health and environmental crises.
International partnerships enhance our capacity to engage with the global research world, for example through exchanges and funding for Canadian PhDs and post-docs to gain international experience, as well as programs that bring international scholars to work with their Canadian counterparts in university or private sector labs.
We also know that by investing in international research partnerships, Canada will become increasingly attractive to talented scholars from all over the world. Some of these scholars will choose to stay in Canada to join university research teams, take on research positions in industry or launch their own startups. Others who have spent time here may pursue their careers elsewhere, but Canadian researchers and ventures will ultimately benefit from those connections and networks.
Research councils expanding international collaborations
Canada’s research councils are actively engaged in finding ways to embed expanded international research collaboration in their collective funding streams. The New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF), a Tri-Council program overseen by the Canada Research Coordinating Committee, has established flexible new mechanisms for multi-disciplinary international collaborations.
There are exciting plans for launching a large-scale multilateral initiative addressing climate change. In addition, Canada is currently negotiating its affiliation to the Horizon Europe platform, which will be accessible to researchers through NFRF.
The individual research councils have also expanded support for international collaborations covered by their specific mandates. NSERC has sought to organically embed international research collaboration in its funding streams and in its long-term strategy.
Bilateral agreements on focused areas and with select partners are also an important mechanism to enable our scientists to collaborate internationally. In 2020 NSERC and Innovate UK collaborated to support joint academic/industrial projects in quantum technologies. Last year NSERC and the European Commission established a joint initiative to support multi-disciplinary quantum technology research.
More recently NSERC and the U.S. National Science Foundation established a new collaboration, launching a joint call for research into AI and quantum science, with a streamlined lead agency approach. NSERC has also renewed and expanded a highly successful 10-year-old joint venture, IRTG-CREATE, with the German Research Foundation. A key feature of this partnership has been the training and international mobility of researchers and students. NSERC also partnered with the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research on a program to fund joint hydrogen technology projects.
And just a few weeks ago, NSERC signed a new agreement with France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) that expands our joint activities, and recognizes the bi-national support for the CNRS International Research Labs located in Canada.
Targeted bilateral collaborations on key technologies, and versatile programs such as the international stream at NFRF and Alliance International will help position Canada’s vibrant research community as a significant global player in science and technology. Indeed, access to Horizon Europe promises to be an important watershed for the Canadian research ecosystem.
Dr. Alejandro Adem, PhD, is President of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and Chair of the Canada Research Coordinating Committee. He is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of British Columbia.