Building research partnerships across disciplines, sectors and borders
Dr. Ted Hewitt
Chair, Canada Research Coordinating Committee
President, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council

Many urgent global challenges – such as those related to climate change, migration, inequality, and the wise use of artificial intelligence – are termed “wicked” problems for a reason. They all involve conflicting perspectives, contested use of facts, and continually evolving value propositions. Applying a unidimensional lens to help us understand complex challenges is almost certainly doomed to failure. Instead, we must bring many kinds of knowledge, as well as diverse views, to the problem-solving process to discover actions best suited to the development of sustainable solutions.

That is precisely why academic research in many fields has transformed itself in recent decades from the model of a sole investigator toward teams of researchers combining insights from multiple disciplines and sectors. These teams now extend across borders and well beyond academia, drawing in partners from industry, not-for-profit organizations and government who recognize the need for new knowledge and insights that are vital to addressing the issues of the day.

For decades, collaboration and the forging of partnerships have been a hallmark of the work at Canada’s three federal research funding agencies: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Recognizing that science and critical thinking now take place in more places than ever before, the three agencies today support unprecedented levels of collaboration with universities, other research funding agencies and government departments, as well as not-for-profit, private sector and international partners. For example, within SSHRC’s programs, the number of partners and collaborators cited in funding applications has increased dramatically from fewer than 100 in 1998 to more than 2,200 today.

The three agencies, together with the Canada Foundation for Innovation, are evolving to better support discovery and innovation across the disciplinary array. Since its formation in 2017, the Canada Research Coordinating Committee (CRCC) – tasked with improving the coordination efforts of Canada’s research granting agencies – has already launched several transformative policies and programs that encourage Canadian researchers to explore and take risks; to lead and work with partners across disciplines, sectors and borders; and to create inclusive teams with diverse perspectives. These collaborative approaches benefit Canadians by developing solutions to real-world problems while supporting Canada’s research leadership on the world stage.

In late 2018, the CRCC launched the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF), which supports three streams of research: Exploration, Transformation and International. Backed by a $275 million investment over five years and $65 million ongoing, it represents a fundamental shift in how Canada invests in research. It encourages Canadian researchers to propose new directions, support collaboration among non-traditional partners, and address problems from new perspectives.

One collaboration within the Exploration stream, for instance, is enabling a minor hockey association to collaborate with a mechanical engineer, a sports medicine physician and a kinesiology researcher to investigate the cumulative effects of non-diagnosed concussions on the brains of male and female hockey players. In another project, partnership among a health foundation, a provincial government and multi-disciplinary researchers will lead to better ways of promoting accessibility for disabled persons in urban public spaces.

The CRCC is also enhancing research excellence through new initiatives to develop the next generation of talent and bring a wider range of expertise and viewpoints into the research community. The three agencies recently launched a Statement on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) as well as the Dimensions Charter, a program that publically recognizes institutions committed to increasing EDI for under-represented groups in research. Indigenous groups and communities are co-developing with the three agencies new models for Indigenous research and training.

In these ways and others, Canada’s research landscape is tackling the challenges of the 21st century through more collaborative, equitable and innovative research models.

Visit for more information on the CRCC and its national priorities.