Implementing the Innovation Agenda: A Study of Change at a Research Funding Agency


With the rise of an innovation agenda in science policy, previous studies have identified a shift in how the state delegates responsibility to funding agencies in order to change the behaviour of the scientific community. This paper contributes to this literature through a micro-level study of how one of Canada’s largest research funding agencies, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), has changed resource allocation for research over 25 years. Our study foregrounds research funding agencies as key sites for examining the reconfiguration of the relationship between the state and science, as expressed in programmatic and resource allocation decisions. Through analysis of an original dataset compiled from NSERC’s funding and documentary data, we demonstrate the relationship between the introduction of innovation objectives in funding instruments, the adoption of new delegation modes to guide resource allocation, and changes in funding among research fields over time. Our study empirically demonstrates the cumulative effect of programmatic and funding decisions in a major agency, going beyond previous accounts of more general trends at the national level.

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Fig. 1

Source: Authors’ calculations based on total amounts given out each year and the number of grants recorded in NSERC’s awards database

Fig. 2
Fig. 3

Source: Authors’ calculations based on total amounts given out each year in NSERC’s awards database

Fig. 4

Source: Authors’ calculations based on total amounts given out each year in NSERC’s awards database

Fig. 5

Source: Authors’ calculations based on total amounts given out each year in NSERC’s awards database

Fig. 6

Source: Authors’ calculations based on total amounts given out each year in NSERC’s awards database


  1. 1.

    The other two federal funding agencies are the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). SSHRC supports research and training in the social sciences and humanities; CIHR provides support for health and medical research.

  2. 2.

    Stokes clarifies that there is, in fact, a fourth quadrant in which the answer to both “consideration of use?” and “quest for understanding?” is no. Such research “systematically explores particular phenomena without having in view either general exploratory objectives or any applied use to which the results will be put” (emphasis in original, Stokes 1997: 74).

  3. 3.

    For example, research subjects “1101 Structural loads and safety” and “1102 Steel: materials and structures” could be grouped under the broader research field “1100 Structural Engineering”. Application sub-areas “501 Processed food products and beverages” and “504 Human pharmaceuticals” could be grouped under “500 Manufacturing processes and products”.

  4. 4.

    Approximately 9% of investments of interest, or C$1.6 billion out of C$18.4 billion, did not have research categories available in the database. 18%, or C$3.4 billion, did not have entries available for application areas.

  5. 5.

    “Funded researchers” refers to scientists listed on successful grants in the awards database. Some scientists serve as principal investigators for “group” or multi-researcher projects, meaning that, in practice, the “per-capita” figure will be further diluted because the number of recipients benefitting from certain grants may be larger in practice.

  6. 6.

    On many funding applications, researchers are asked to provide the primary and secondary areas of application for their research using NSERC’s code tables. NSERC’s database only provides one code, which was used in our analysis.

  7. 7.

    For this analysis, we excluded instruments supporting both pure and use-inspired basic research because of the difficulty of assigning an appropriate fraction to each research type.

  8. 8.

    Research subjects were analyzed based on entries in the database, which are usually self-identified by the researchers preparing the applications and are based on code tables provided by the funding agency. NSERC’s database only provides one research subject code.

  9. 9.

    The notable increase in the fraction of such funds in 2007-08 at NSERC was largely due to federal commitments to create the “centres of excellence for commercialization and research” and to boost the long-standing federal Networks of Centres of Excellence program by injecting funds for private sector-led initiatives.

  10. 10.

    This is due mainly to the introduction of programs for researchers collaborating with firms, in which applications bypass the academic peer review with funding decisions left to the discretion of the granting council’s internal staff.


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The authors would like to greatly acknowledge Dr. James Li for his help in generating an awards dataset for analysis, Mr. Stuart Rolfe for his advice on analytical data strategies, and Dr. Mitchell Young for helpful comments on our first draft. An earlier version of this paper was presented on August 24, 2018 at the ECPR 2018 General Conference (Section on Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation) at the Universität Hamburg in Hamburg, Germany. We would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers and the editorial board for providing very valuable feedback on our manuscript. This research was not supported by any funding agencies or other organizations.

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Veletanlić, E., Sá, C. Implementing the Innovation Agenda: A Study of Change at a Research Funding Agency. Minerva 58, 261–283 (2020).

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  • Research policy
  • Research councils
  • Principal-agent theory
  • Delegation modes
  • Innovation
  • Canada