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CAUT Town Hall Series – COVID-19 and Research

Constructive discussion with Tri-council representatives

Nearly 300 CAUT members joined this online town hall to discuss the effects of COVID-19 on research with representatives from the granting councils. The closure of the economy and public spaces took the Tri-Council by surprise and they had to adapt quickly to continue fulfilling their mission.

“We have been focused on continuing our business, so we wanted to avoid cancelling competitions,” said Dominique Bérubé, Vice-President, Research, of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). “When we started, we thought we would deal in terms of weeks, now we think it will be months, so we want to make sure not to mortgage our future.”

As a first step, the granting agencies all adopted measures to extend grants without costs and moved deadlines. On top of the one-year extension to grants, SSHRC also made eligible certain costs that would not normally be incurred due to the pandemic, including cancelled trips to conferences and remuneration costs for members of a research team. “And COVID-19 is going to be considered as the rational for interruption, delay or cancellation of projects,” added Dr. Bérubé.

“The priorities are to stabilize the teams and the projects and, in the long term, to stabilize the research and development ecosystem in Canada,” explained Marc Fortin, Vice-President, Research Partnerships at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) .

Dr. Fortin said that there are countless opportunities now for the research community to contribute to the fight against COVID-19. “We received a little more than 500 grant submissions. There is tremendous potential to find solutions to this crisis and we should be proud of the scientific community, because people stepped up.”

Asked about the effect of the pandemic on equity seeking groups, the representatives all agreed that certain people were more affected and that the councils would take that into account. “We recognize the situation and believe me, I sympathize because I have a young kid at home too,” answered Danika Goosney, Vice-President, Research Grants and Scholarships Directorate at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

“Transitioning online was not easy for everybody and we know that some people are not able to conduct their research because they are taking care of their kids full-time. They are not going to be productive now,” said Dr. Goosney.

“Equality, Diversity and Inclusion have been an important priority for the agencies for a number of years. We are not patting ourselves on the back too much because we have ways to go still, but maybe part of this crisis will teach us ways to do things differently that will be helpful when we return to whatever our normal is,” said Adrian Mota, Acting Associate Vice-President, Research, Knowledge Translation and Ethics, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

As an example, Dr Mota said that the agencies are now conducting remote review panels for grants, so reviewers don’t have to travel all the way to Ottawa to participate, disrupting his or her family life. “Agencies are able to learn a lot from this. We are required to innovate and we will raise the bar even more.”

“We don’t have a crystal ball, but we can continue to adapt and adjust to the situation,” concluded Marc Fortin. The key is to work with the community of researchers to know the impact of the pandemic on their work and to keep talking with the government. This is the beginning of the conversation and we want to keep talking with you and we are asking for you patience, as we are putting new measures in place.”

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