2020 Exploration Competition


Notice of intent to apply deadline August 18, 2020, 8:00 p.m. (eastern)
Full application deadline October 20, 2020, 8:00 p.m. (eastern)
Value Up to $125,000 per year (including indirect costs)
Duration Up to two years
Competition budget A minimum of $25 million over two years
Number of grants A minimum of 100
A proportion of awards equal to the proportion of applications received from early career researchers will be reserved for them.
Results announced By March 31, 2021
Grant start date March 31, 2021
How to apply

All applicants must complete the notice of intent to apply and submit a full application.

See the Notice of Intent to Apply Guide and the Full Application Guide for more information. Other useful resources to assist in the completion of your application include Best Practices in Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Research and the evaluation matrices.

For more information See Frequently Asked Questions or email NFRF-FNFR@chairs-chaires.gc.ca

Table of contents

July 13, 2020: The 2020 Exploration Reviewer Manual is now available.

Consult this section regularly for updates on the 2020 Exploration competition, including information about webinars. The stages of the 2020 Exploration competition differ from those of the 2019 competition. Read all current competition material to ensure your submission is complete.


Applicants and research administrators are encouraged to attend the Exploration webinars to learn more about the Exploration stream and the overall application process.

There are a limited number of attendee spots per session. Institutions are strongly encouraged to arrange group webinar sessions for their researchers. Webinars will be recorded, and the presentations made available following the session. Please contact your institution’s research grants office for more information.

Application Stage
Date Time Language
August 25 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. (eastern) French

Join webinar

August 25 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. (eastern) English

Join webinar

The goal of the Exploration stream is to inspire high-risk, high-reward and interdisciplinary research.

Exploration grants support research that pushes boundaries into exciting new areas. Researchers are encouraged to think “outside of the box,” undertake research that would defy current paradigms, and bring disciplines together in unexpected ways and from bold, innovative perspectives. With the Exploration stream, there is recognition that innovation often carries risk; proposals for high-risk research projects that have the potential to deliver game-changing impacts are strongly encouraged.

Exploration stream grants support projects that:

  • bring disciplines together beyond traditional disciplinary or common interdisciplinary approaches;
  • propose to explore something new, which might fail; and
  • have the potential for significant impact.

Exploration grants support research with a range of impacts, some of which might be social, cultural, economic, health-related or technological. This list is not exhaustive; other types of impacts are also recognized. Diversity of perspectives is important, and the fund encourages research proposals led from any discipline, from those in the social sciences and humanities, to health, the natural sciences and engineering.

To better promote ground-breaking and interdisciplinary research, the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) has a mandate to explore innovative merit review processes, and the flexibility for competition parameters and processes to evolve from one competition to the next. The 2020 Exploration competition merit review processes differ from those of previous Exploration competitions, and include elements distinct from those used in flagship tri-agency programs.

The maximum budget for the direct costs of the research project is $100,000 per year, for up to two years. Applicants may, in addition, request up to 25% of the value of the direct costs of research to cover indirect costs, and include this in their total funding request. Indirect costs funding must be used only to pay for eligible expenses as outlined on the Research Support Fund website. The indirect costs component of each NFRF award is included in the award value; it is not in addition to it.

Project team

To encourage projects that push the boundaries in terms of interdisciplinarity, proposals must be submitted by research teams composed of at least two individuals. In addition to a nominated principal investigator (NPI), the team must include either a co-principal investigator (co-PI) or a co-applicant. Teams may include up to one co-PI and any number of co-applicants and/or collaborators.

To ensure that Exploration grants support high-risk, high-reward projects across the broadest spectrum of disciplines, individuals can participate in only one Exploration stream application or grant at one time as either an NPI, co-PI or co-applicant. These restrictions do not apply to collaborators. These restrictions also do not apply to the NFRF Transformation and International streams. An individual may simultaneously apply as or be an award holder as an NPI, co-PI or co-applicant for grants under separate streams (Exploration, Transformation and International).

Early career researcher

For a proposal to be considered led by early career researchers (ECRs), both the NPI and co-PI (if applicable) must be ECRs. An ECR is a researcher within five years from the start date of their first research-related appointment, minus the length of any eligible delays in research (e.g., illness, maternity, parental), as of the first of the month in which the competition is launched (June 1, 2020, for this Exploration competition), where:

  • “research-related appointments” are defined as those where an individual has the autonomy to conduct research independently;
  • all eligible leaves (e.g., maternity, parental, medical, bereavement) are credited at twice the amount of time taken; and
  • professional leaves (e.g., training, sabbatical, administrative) are not credited.

Research interruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g., closures) are recognized as, and may be counted as, an eligible delay (credited at twice the amount of time) beginning March 1, 2020.

If a first academic appointment was a part-time appointment/position, years of experience are counted at 50%, until the researcher’s appointment to a full-time academic position. More details are available in the FAQs.

Nominated principal investigator

The NPI:

  • is responsible for the direction of the project and the coordination of proposed research activities, in conjunction with the co-PI (if applicable);
  • completes and submits the NOI and full application, through the research administrator at their institution;
  • assumes administrative and financial responsibility for the grant; and
  • receives all related correspondence from the agencies.

The NPI must be considered an independent researcher at their primary affiliation. A primary affiliation is defined as the primary organization at which an individual is employed, appointed or conducts research.

An independent researcher is an individual who:

  • engages in research-related activities that are not under the direction of another individual; and
  • has an academic or research appointment that:
    • commences by the full application deadline;
    • allows the individual to pursue the proposed research project, engage in independent research activities for the entire duration of the funding, supervise trainees (if applicable, as per the institution’s policy), and publish the research results; and
    • obliges the individual to comply with institutional policies on the conduct of research, supervision of trainees (if applicable), and employment conditions of staff paid using tri-agency funding.

Individuals who are full- or part-time students, postdoctoral fellows or research associates are not eligible to apply as NPIs, regardless of whether they also meet the definition of an independent researcher.

The NPI’s primary affiliation must be with a Canadian institution currently holding full institutional eligibility with one of the agencies. See the list of eligible institutions for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) or Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

If the NPI’s primary affiliation is not on SSHRC’s list of eligible institutions, the institution may be required to sign the Agreement on the Administration of Agency Grants and Awards by Research Institutions with SSHRC, for this program only, prior to receiving agency funds. Agency staff will contact applicants’ institutions to initiate this process, as appropriate.

Co-principal investigator

The co-PI shares responsibility with the NPI for the direction of the proposed activities, and may access grant funds.

The co-PI must also be considered an independent researcher.

They may be affiliated with a Canadian or international organization, but must not be affiliated with a federal, provincial, territorial or municipal government department or a for-profit organization. Students, postdoctoral fellows, research associates, etc. are not eligible to participate as a co-PI.


Co-applicants contribute to the execution of the research project, and may access grant funds.

Co-applicants may be independent researchers. Or, they may be, but are not limited to, practitioners, policy-makers, educators, decision-makers, health-care administrators, Indigenous elders, Indigenous knowledge keepers, community leaders, or individuals working for a charity. To be eligible as a co-applicant, researchers and professors must be considered independent researchers.

Co-applicants may be affiliated with a Canadian or international organization, but must not be affiliated with a federal, provincial, territorial or municipal government department or a for-profit organization. Students, postdoctoral fellows, research associates, etc. are not eligible to participate as a co-applicant.


Collaborators contribute to the execution of research activities, but do not have access to grant funds.

Collaborators do not need to be affiliated with an eligible institution. Any individual who will contribute to the project is eligible to be a collaborator.

Collaborators may include individuals affiliated with a federal, provincial, territorial or municipal government department or a for-profit organization. They may also be affiliated with a Canadian or international organization.

Any individual whose contributions to the project will be supervised by the NPI, co-PI, co-applicant and/or another collaborator cannot be considered a collaborator.


A federal government employee who is formally affiliated with a Canadian academic institution as an adjunct professor is eligible to be a collaborator. Where students who are registered at an academic institution and formally supervised by an adjunct professor will be participating in the research project, the adjunct professor is eligible to be a co-applicant, but the use of funds by the adjunct professor is limited to salaries or stipends and travel costs for the students under their supervision. Adjunct professors are also eligible to be co-PIs or co-applicants in exceptional cases where their planned contributions to the project do not fall within the mandate of their federal organization and will not be performed within their employer’s facilities or with their employer’s resources.

Individuals whose primary affiliation is with an Indigenous government are eligible to be co-PIs if they are considered independent researchers, or to be co-applicants or collaborators. Their eligible expenses are limited to those that are related to the execution of the project that are not within the mandate of the Indigenous government.

Subject matter (fit to program)

Exploration grants support projects that are high risk, high reward and interdisciplinary. They may involve disciplines, thematic areas, approaches or subject areas eligible for funding across the three agencies. Eligible projects include those with specific short-to-medium-term objectives, as well as discrete phases in longer-range research programs.

To meet the minimum requirement to be considered interdisciplinary, a proposed research project must include elements from at least two different disciplines (as defined by a group-level classification based on the Canadian Research and Development Classification). Projects that incorporate two disciplines with a long and established tradition of working together (e.g., biology and chemistry or psychology and education) may satisfy the above requirement but not meet the expectations of the program. The onus is on the applicant to explain the novelty of the interdisciplinary approach to justify the fit to program.

The following elements are indicative of projects that do not meet program expectations for high risk, and are considered ineligible: research that is the obvious next step; data collection without interpretation of underlying mechanisms or patterns; professional practice or consulting services (contract research); set-up and operational management of an institute or a formal or informal group of researchers (network); curriculum development; organization of a conference or workshop; digitization of a collection or creation of a database; application of existing technology or commercialization of a product/process; routine analyses; and/or acquisition and maintenance of research equipment.

Applications for projects that are the same or similar, in whole or in part, to ones that have been funded by other federal research granting agency programs should not be submitted to the NFRF program. Applications for projects the same as or similar to projects that have been unsuccessful in receiving funding from other agency programs may be submitted to the NFRF program in cases where the lack of success is due to the high-risk and/or interdisciplinary nature of the project, rather than limited funds in a highly competitive pool.

Applications not meeting any of the requirements outlined above may be withdrawn at any point in the competition, or have their NFRF grant terminated (with the NPI’s primary affiliation being responsible for reimbursing the total amount of the grant).

Applications for funding the same or very similar research cannot be simultaneously submitted to two different funding opportunities, including to funding opportunities at different agencies.


Grant holders will be expected to report on the use of grant funds, on funded activities undertaken during the grant period, and on outcomes. NPIs of successful applications will be informed of reporting requirements upon receiving a notice of award.

To apply for this Exploration grant, NPIs, along with a co-PI and/or co-applicants, must submit an NOI by August 18, 2020. The research team must then submit a full application by October 20, 2020.

Applicants must complete the NOI and full application using the Convergence Portal, and follow the instructions outlined in the NOI and full application guides.

NOIs and full applications that are received after the deadlines or are incomplete will be withdrawn from the competition.

All NOIs and full applications are first submitted to the research administrator (research grants office or equivalent) at the NPI’s primary affiliation. The administrator must submit the NOI or full application through the online portal before the relevant deadline. Research administrators are free to set their own internal deadlines.

Date Milestone
June 24, 2020 Competition launches
Convergence Portal opens for NOIs
August 18, 2020 NOI deadline
August 25, 2020 Convergence Portal opens for full applications
October 20, 2020 Full application deadline
March 31, 2021 Award results released
Start date of awards


Indigenous research

SSHRC’s Indigenous Research Statement of Principles and Guidelines for the Merit Review of Indigenous Research should be used as references for researchers preparing applications related to or involving Indigenous research. The guidelines are provided to merit reviewers to help build understanding of Indigenous research and research-related activities, and to assist committee members in interpreting the specific evaluation criteria in the context of Indigenous research. The guidelines may also be of use to external assessors, postsecondary institutions and partner organizations that support Indigenous research.

Gender-based analysis plus

Gender-based analysis plus (GBA+) is an analytical process used to assess the potential impact that identity factors, such as sex, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age and mental or physical disability, may have on the experience of the individual. The purpose of GBA+ is to promote rigorous research that is sensitive to sex and gender as well as many other identity factors, like race, ethnicity, religion, age, and mental or physical disability. These considerations must be integrated into the research design, when appropriate. Applicants and reviewers should refer to Women and Gender Equality Canada’s information on GBA+ as well as the Sex- and Gender-Based Analysis (SGBA) section of CIHR’s website for definitions for sex, gender, SGBA and GBA+, as well as information on applying GBA+ and SGBA to the development and assessment of research proposals.

A rationale must be provided in cases where a research team believes no aspect of their research may benefit from an analysis to take into consideration sex, gender or other identity factors.

For the NFRF program, GBA+ is distinct from the EDI criterion.

Selection criteria

There are five selection criteria for funding opportunities offered under the NFRF program. The weightings and application of the criteria vary between different NFRF streams (Exploration, Transformation and International) to reflect the goals of each. An overview of the criteria as they apply to the evaluation of Exploration proposals follows. The elements considered under each criterion are outlined in more detail in the evaluation matrices.


Applications must clearly demonstrate that the proposal integrates approaches from at least two disciplines that do not traditionally collaborate together, or combines them in a novel way. The application must also explain why an interdisciplinary approach is required, and/or the added value this approach brings to the research problem.

Equity, diversity and inclusion

EDI is a core element of the NFRF program.

Applicants must clearly demonstrate their commitment to EDI in their research teams, including among students, postdoctoral fellows, co-PIs, co-applicants and/or collaborators, as applicable. They must explain what actions they will take, the outcomes expected, and the assessment planned for each of the following three key areas:

  • team composition and recruitment processes;
  • training and development opportunities; and
  • inclusion.

Actions taken are expected to remove barriers and provide opportunities for the meaningful integration of individuals from all groups, including the four designated groups (women, Indigenous peoples, members of visible minorities and persons with disabilities).

An application must not include any personal information about members of the research team in the EDI section; the focus is on the team’s commitment to EDI, not its EDI profile.

For more information, see NFRF’s Best Practices in Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Research.

High risk

Exploration grants are intended to fund high-risk research. Researchers are encouraged to think “outside of the box,” undertake research that defies current paradigms, and bring disciplines together in unexpected ways and from bold, innovative perspectives. It is recognized that innovation carries risk and, consequently, it is expected that a number of funded projects will fail to meet their objectives.

High risk can be defined by elements such as, but not limited to:

  • proposing unique directions;
  • challenging current research paradigms;
  • enhancing understanding of complex and challenging issues;
  • bringing new disciplines together with different perspectives, to use novel approaches for solving existing problems; and/or
  • developing or adapting frameworks, methods and techniques.

High reward

The potential for high reward balances the risk that projects might fail.

High reward can be defined by elements such as, but not limited to:

  • having an economic, scientific, artistic, cultural, technological or health impact;
  • impacting and/or affecting large communities, or unique communities or subpopulations with the potential to provide lessons for other contexts;
  • transforming and/or disrupting conventional thinking;
  • resolving a longstanding issue or debate; and/or
  • significantly advancing current knowledge, methods and/or technologies.


While a focus on high risk may seem at odds with feasibility, risk must be related to the idea being proposed, and not to a lack of a concrete plan or inability to execute the activities. Feasibility considers elements such as the:

  • research problem being addressed;
  • knowledge, expertise and capacity of the research team;
  • current research in the field;
  • workplan and timeline;
  • proposed approach, including GBA+/SGBA where appropriate;
  • project’s engagement and reciprocity with First Nations, Inuit and/or Métis peoples (for Indigenous research), where appropriate; and
  • suitability of the research environment.

Competition stages

NOIs will be used for administrative purposes (identifying external reviewers and composing the multidisciplinary review panel).

Full applications will be reviewed by external reviewers through a double-blind process, and by the multidisciplinary review panel, taking into account the external reviewers’ input.

Internal review

Any NOIs or full applications that do not meet the program's eligibility requirements and application guidelines will be withdrawn from the competition.

External review

External reviewers with relevant subject matter expertise will evaluate applications in accordance with the high-risk, high-reward, interdisciplinarity and feasibility selection criteria. The external review process is double-blind, with the applicants not knowing the identity of the external reviewers and the external reviewers not provided information identifying the research team. The NPI must ensure that the Summary of the Proposal and the Research Proposal do not contain any identifying information about the team.

Multidisciplinary review panel

A multidisciplinary review panel composed of national and international members with broad expertise will evaluate the applications. To uphold the program's commitment to EDI, and to ensure the highest quality of review, members of the panel will be diverse, taking into consideration the:

  • area of expertise;
  • sector;
  • ability to review applications in either official language;
  • representation from the four designated groups (women, Indigenous peoples, visible minorities and persons with disabilities);
  • regional representation across Canada;
  • institution size; 
  • career stage;
  • knowledge of best practices regarding EDI; and
  • experience in Indigenous research.

Review process—full application

A minimum of three external reviewers will be recruited to evaluate each full application. Reviewers will be asked to comment on the high risk, high reward and interdisciplinarity criteria, as well as the feasibility criterion as it relates to the research plan only. To support this evaluation, the external review process will be double-blind, with applicants not knowing the identity of the external reviewers, and external reviewers not provided information that would identify the research team. The external reviewers will have access to the summary from the NOI and to the GBA+ section, the research proposal and budget justification from the full application.

Each application will also be assigned to five members of the multidisciplinary review panel. Members will have access to the entire application, in addition to the external reviewer reports. The members will assess proposals against the following selection criteria:

  • EDI (pass/fail)
  • interdisciplinarity (pass/fail)
  • high risk (40%)
  • high reward (40%)
  • feasibility (20%)

Members’ ratings for the high risk, high reward and feasibility criteria will determine an overall score for each application. These scores will identify the top-rated applications to be discussed at the review committee meeting. The multidisciplinary review committee will make a final recommendation on applications for funding to the NFRF Steering Committee.

Steering committee

The Canada Research Coordinating Committee (CRCC) provides strategic direction and oversight for the NFRF and serves as the high-level steering committee for the fund. As a tri-agency program, program oversight is delegated to the NFRF Steering Committee, which includes the presidents of CIHR, NSERC and SSHRC, and the deputy ministers of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, and Health Canada. The NFRF Steering Committee makes decisions regarding which applications to fund, based on the review panel’s recommendations. It also ensures the evaluation process is rigorous, objective and transparent, in keeping with the standards of excellence expected by the agencies and consistent with the program’s objectives.

Communication of results

Applicants will be informed of competition results via the Convergence Portal. In addition to the notice of decision, all applicants will be provided a summary of the evaluation of their application. For more details about the review process, see the Reviewer Manual.

All applicants and grant holders must comply with the Regulations Governing Grant Applications and with the regulations set out in the Tri-agency Guide on Financial Administration.

Grant holders must also comply with the Tri-Agency Open Access Policy on Publications (see Open Access overview for more information). Researchers are encouraged to manage, in accordance with both community standards and best practices, data arising from their research (see also the tri-agency policies and guidelines on Research Data Management).

Recipients of SSHRC funding must comply with SSHRC's Intellectual Property and Copyright policy.

Use of grant funds

The information below explains to grant holders and research administrators the regulations governing use of NFRF grant funds. They supersede all previous statements on grant regulations.

The NFRF program uses the Tri-agency Guide on Financial Administration as its general guidelines for eligibility of expenses and use of funds related to the direct costs of research. Exceptions to those policies for Exploration grants are noted below. If unsure about the eligibility of a particular expense, please contact the NFRF team. Rules for the indirect costs portion of the grant can be found on the Research Support Fund website.

Compensation-related expenses


The following are eligible salary expenses only for NPIs, co-PIs and co-applicants affiliated with an eligible Canadian college:

  • salary for research activities of a part-time faculty member holding a contract of less than three years with the institution (the total salary support of part-time salary plus NFRF grant salary support cannot exceed that for a full-time faculty member at the institution, when calculated on an annual or hourly basis);
  • salaries and nondiscretionary benefits for technical and professional staff carrying out research and technology, and/or for knowledge transfer personnel (salaries and nondiscretionary benefits for research administrators and business development personnel are not eligible);
  • limited costs towards course load reduction, for replacement of faculty to support faculty members’ involvement in the research project (up to $9,000 per course load reduction per semester per faculty, or the equivalent of 0.1 full-time-equivalent positions); and
  • college student salaries, including nondiscretionary benefits or stipends, to support students’ involvement in the research project.

Termination of a grant

The agencies will terminate a grant when the grantee no longer holds an eligible position at an eligible institution, unless the grant is transferred to an eligible co-PI or co-applicant. It is at the agencies’ sole discretion whether to allow such a transfer. See the FAQs for more information about grant transfers.

Residual balances

All grants paid have a primary holder, namely the person whose name appears on the notice of award.

Any NFRF funds remaining at the end of the Authority to Use Funds period must be returned to SSHRC. Cheques returning unspent funds to SSHRC must be payable to the Receiver General and accompanied by a signed Form 300, indicating an unspent balance in the same amount as the refund.

Terms and conditions

The agencies reserve the right to:

  • determine the eligibility of applications, based on the information therein;
  • interpret the regulations and policies governing their funding opportunities;
  • apply conditions to individual grants; and
  • alter, without advance notice, the terms and conditions of grant awards—with any and all major changes in regulations being announced promptly.

For more information, contact: NFRF-FNFR@chairs-chaires.gc.ca

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