Goel, on behalf of U of T, and Freeland sign the Dimensions Charter (photo by Johnny Guatto)

From theoretical work in the sciences to applied work in engineering and health fields, over 180 University of Toronto researchers will share more than $51 million through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Discovery Grants program.

The grants, which support experts at all career stages, but are especially important for early-career researchers, were announced Friday by Minister of Foreign Affairs and MP for University-Rosedale Chrystia Freeland at an event held at U of T’s Medical Sciences Building.  

“Universities occupy an essential space in our society by promoting research, innovation and debate – and the University of Toronto is an internationally recognized, premier institution of higher learning that connects Canada to the world,” Freeland told the event’s attendees.

“The support we are announcing today will help our high-calibre researchers bring new voices and new insights to their fields, leading game-changing discoveries.”

The announcement of the grants secured by researchers at U of T, which leads the country in obtaining Discovery Grants funding, followed an earlier federal government announcement in May about its plan to invest more than $558 million Canada-wide through the program.

“NSERC Discovery Grants, Scholarships and Fellowships recognize the creativity and innovation that are at the heart of all research advances,” said Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president of research and innovation, and strategic initiatives. “Many of these awards have gone to U of T researchers in 2019, and we are grateful for the federal government’s support.

“Our researchers our pushing the boundaries of fundamental science and discovery and applying knowledge in fields from advanced manufacturing to health to help answer some of society’s most pressing questions, boost the Canadian economy, and contribute to improving lives around the world.

“For early-career researchers, these awards also provide the foundation for important work that will continue well into the future.”

Prior to Friday’s announcement, Professor Kimberly Strong, chair of U of T’s department of physics and a Discovery Grant recipient, took Freeland on a tour of her lab.

Strong, an expert in atmospheric remote sounding using ground-based, balloon-borne and satellite instruments for the study of ozone chemistry, climate and air quality, hailed the Discovery Grants as the “backbone of the Canadian scientific research ecosystem,” and noted that NSERC has supported her work since she joined U of T’s physics department in 1996.

She said the grant supports research that will help improve understanding of the physical and chemical processes that drive atmospheric change.

“To achieve this goal, my group will be measuring atmospheric trace gas concentrations in urban, rural and remote Arctic sites,” Strong said, adding that the grant will support undergraduates, graduates and post-doctoral researchers exploring topics ranging from the origin of urban pollution in Toronto to the impact of agricultural practices on air quality.

Similarly, Khandker Nurul Habib, an associate professor in the department of civil and mineral engineering, said the NSERC grants have supported his research and helped recruit and prepare students for the workforce.

Habib’s research focuses on developing decision-support systems for transportation planning in an era of ride-hailing services and connected automotive technologies.

“The framework I’ve been developing through this program will hopefully be able to quantify the impacts of unforeseen situations and help prepare our cities to tackle them,” said Habib.

“I truly appreciate the government’s support in boosting the funding for NSERC Discovery Grants. This is fundamental and pivotal for continuing fundamental research at the university level.”

Habib and Strong are part of a university-wide success story when it comes to the NSERC Discovery Grants, with U of T seeing a higher success rate of grant applications than any other Canadian university. U of T researchers secure more funding on average compared to the national average.

On Friday, U of T also took the opportunity to signal its longstanding commitment to fostering an environment of diversity, equity and inclusion by signing onto the Dimensions Charter. The charter, unveiled by Minister of Science and Sport Kirsty Duncan earlier this year, comprises eight principles that aim to transform research culture by addressing obstacles faced by groups including women, LGBTQ communities, Indigenous Peoples, persons with disabilities, racialized groups and members of visible minorities. 

Goel, who signed the charter on behalf of the university, noted in his remarks that the incorporation of diverse experiences, backgrounds and perspectives into the research environment boosts the quality and impact of research, strengthening the research community now and in the future.