Now is the time for Canada to lead in fostering global research collaborations that drive innovative solutions to grand challenges

(Published in The Hill Times, Innovation Supplement October 2022—subscription required)

Ted Hewitt, President, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council

Countries around the world clearly understand the close connection between strong research, development and innovation efforts and national economic growth, prosperity and competitiveness. The COVID-19 pandemic has also brought building domestic resilience to the forefront of many national agendas.

At the same time, however, in the face of climate change, food insecurity, health crises and international security, many countries recognize the urgent need to strategically pool our efforts and resources globally. We must better understand the many dimensions of these grand challenges before we can develop innovative and effective solutions that benefit us all.

Innovation, after all, very frequently occurs when insights from diverse research disciplines, countries, cultures, political systems and knowledge systems come together. No country, discipline or culture has the monopoly on new thinking. More opportunities for novel ideas and approaches can result from a range of collaborations across different and unique actors and areas.

There is a growing recognition that international interdisciplinary research is the key to understanding and developing innovative solutions to grand challenges such as climate change. Insofar as people are at the heart of both the challenges we face and any possible solutions, the social sciences and humanities have a key role to play in this process, as they provide the crucial questions, data and universal insights into human behaviour and societies. They also help us anticipate how collectively we will respond to change in a fast-changing world.

So, how can we encourage and mobilize challenge-focused international multidisciplinary research? Canada is already a leader in creating and investing in innovative research funding mechanisms and global research platforms. The mechanisms offer a variety of support that act as a catalyst for fueling research ideas and collaborations.  Take, for example, the Circular Economy, an alternative and emerging economic model to support actions for sustainable development in Canada. This topic emerged as an area for significant research potential through various knowledge synthesis grants offered by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council beginning in 2016. Grant holders such as Geoff McCarney at the University of Ottawa’s Smart Prosperity Institute have leveraged insights from their reports on the Circular Economy to go on and develop national and international research collaboration by leveraging additional funding through a range of Partnership grants.

Canada has also led the global development of the United Nations Research Roadmap for COVID-19 Recovery. The Roadmap calls for innovative, interdisciplinary solutions and strengthened global collaboration, acknowledging the interdependence of people and recovery efforts, to achieve transformative change. It emphasizes that gender equity and environmental sustainability must be firmly rooted in all endeavours.

To support projects that directly address the Roadmap’s research priorities, the Canada Research Coordinating Committee (CRRC) launched a special call through its innovative New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF). The $24 million funding opportunity aims to mobilize Canadian-led international research teams in support of a more equitable, sustainable, and resilient post-pandemic reality. The CRCC will announce the results early next year and will share the knowledge generated globally.

In addition, Canada, through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, is a co-founder of the Trans-Atlantic Platform for Social Sciences and Humanities, a consortium of leading research funders across Europe and the Americas focused on supporting international co-operation, enabling interdisciplinary collaboration, and promoting awareness of the crucial role of multidisciplinary research in addressing 21st century challenges. Responding directly to the UN Roadmap, its last joint call on post-pandemic recovery focused on investigating, in depth, the medium-and long-term effects of the pandemic on all aspects of health, social, economic, political, and cultural life.

At SSHRC, we are seeing the results of fostering international research collaboration through a diversity of innovative funding mechanisms.  Between 2017 and 2021, some 2125 Insight and Connection grants featuring 5914 international co-applicants/collaborators, were awarded, valued at close to $398.5M.  During the same period, 344 projects featuring 1135 distinct international partners and valued at $225M were awarded through Partnership Grants. And finally, between 2018-2021, 217 grants, featuring 456 co-applicants and collaborators with an international affiliation, valued at $56.5M, were awarded through the NFRF program noted above. In total, these investments have supported some 2683 projects, featuring 7505 international partners/collaborators/co-applicants, valued at $680.4M – an important indicator of the potential for Canada’s research capacity to lead on the global stage.

Early next year, through the CRCC’s NFRF competition, Canada will lead the world once again in supporting further interdisciplinary research on sustainability.  In partnership with countries such as South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States, NFRF’s International Joint Initiative for Research in Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation will focus on research supporting communities that are most affected by climate change, including Indigenous communities in the North. This initiative will seize the opportunity for the development of mitigation measures, rapid upscaling of adaption approaches and tactics to ensure action and implementation. It will mobilize the full spectrum of Indigenous leadership, participation and knowledge systems.

Led by Canada’s research funding agencies and the CRCC, these are just a few examples of Canada’s leadership and participation in international research opportunities and platforms. But we know we must do more. We must continue to inspire and create new ways of thinking and novel ideas that help us better understand and solve multi-dimensional grand challenges, benefitting not only Canadians, but citizens worldwide, and cementing Canada’s reputation as a preferred and trusted research leader and partner.  

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