SSHRC’s Priority Areas explained

Are you wondering what those Priority Areas are about? How did they get identified? If you aren’t doing research in one of those areas, what are your chances of getting funding?

Don’t panic. Although the name has changed in the recent restructuring of SSHRC programs, these are not new.

Disclaimer: I do not work for SSHRC. This is my interpretation of the new program architecture confirmed through a few informal conversations with current SSHRC staff involved in the changes.

Priority Areas are funding envelopes

One thing to remember is that there is still the main funding envelope and that main envelope is the biggest chunk of the money going to research.

The allocation of grants in that main envelope is still researcher-driven. Your grant proposal is making a case for why your research objectives are likely to make a significant contribution to knowledge. The evaluation criteria just break that general criterion into smaller pieces.

The new program architecture has not reallocated the budgets. It has only restructured how applications are adjudicated to make the whole process more efficient in it’s use of resources (mainly people’s time).

Where did these Priority Area funds come from?

It depends on the area.

Sometimes the SSHRC governing council decides to allocate some of SSHRC’s core budget to research in a particular area. The Aboriginal Research area is this type. You may remember that there has been an Aboriginal Research program in the Strategic Grants division for several years now. This priority area is the continuation of that program.

Sometimes the money comes from other government departments or agencies. These used to be called Joint Initiatives and were managed through the Strategic Grants division (as was). The money came from the budget of another government department that wanted to dedicate some of their budget to research relevant to their policy making. They came to SSHRC to run the peer review process.

There is nothing on the list like that now but the Sport Participation Initiative of the past several years, and previous strategic programs focused on Official Languages were of this type.

Sometimes, the priority area is attached to the funds in the federal budget process. The Environment and Northern Communities and Digital Economy priority areas are of this type*. Basically, there was new money for SSHRC in the federal budget but the new money was already designated for research in particular areas before it even hit SSHRC’s account.

For example, in the description of the Digital Economy research area you will find this statement:

In keeping with the provisions of the 2011 Federal Budget, SSHRC has committed up to $7 million in additional funding for new research and related activities on the digital economy, with a particular focus on partnerships.

As well as references to government policy papers.

Most of the increases to SSHRC’s budget over the past 10 or 15 years have been of this type. You may recall the Initiative on the New Economy which ran from 2000-2005, for example. In the past, these were usually run as separate programs in the Strategic Grants division.

*I think the Innovation, Leadership and Prosperity area may be of this type, too, but it’s harder to tell from the description. There was new money allocated to improving research in business topics a few years ago and that might be this.

What is new in the new program architecture?

These funding envelopes pre-date the new program architecture and the new label “priority area”. As I understand it, the only thing that’s changed is the process by which these funds are allocated.

In the past, there were separate peer review panels for each envelope of money and type of grant. This had several consequences

  • smaller strategic programs usually had multi-disciplinary adjudication panels
  • there was more demand for peers to sit on committees
  • some of the research relevant to the strategic funding envelope wasn’t funded out of that envelope because the researcher didn’t apply to the strategic program but rather to the main Standard Research Grant program
  • some of the people who applied to strategic grants weren’t really doing relevant research and had to reapply to the Standard Research Grant program the following year to get funding
  • some members of the academic community thought that the quality of proposals funded was not equivalent in strategic programs; that it was easier to get funding there and thus securing a strategic grant was rewarded differently in promotion and tenure processes

The new process draws on experiments that SSHRC tried beginning with the final round of the Initiative on the New Economy back in 2005, and then used for other programs, including the recent Sport Participation Initiative.

Instead of setting up a separate committee, the researcher applies to the main competition (Standard Research Grant as was, now Insight or Insight Development, or whatever). The application is adjudicated alongside all the other applications and ranked along with the others without regard to the priority area.

When the funding is being allocated, those applications marked as relevant to the priority area are funded out of the priority area budget instead of the main budget. That means the main budget can fund one more on the list for every one funded out of another budget (roughly, since amount requested isn’t equal).

There is a process to ensure that the applications marked as relevant actually are relevant. This involves the 1-page statement of alignment (formerly statement of relevance) that you add if you’ve ticked a priority area box.

If your application is not judged to be relevant you still get the money from the main budget because you ranked high enough. (This is a big advantage to researchers over the old system. You no longer have to risk applying to the wrong program.)

Of course there are also excellent projects on the list that aren’t funded because the budget ran out before SSHRC got that far down. If you are in the group immediately below that cut-off, and your project is relevant to a priority area and there is money left in the priority budget envelope, you will be funded from that envelope.

The process is still very competitive. Many excellent proposals are not funded out of any budget. But if you place in this race, it doesn’t really matter to you which pot of money they take your grant from, does it. You are funded to do the brilliant work you want to do.

The politics of targeted funding

There is a separate issue about why new money is targeted in this way and why the core budget has not increased significantly.

The issue of who decides which areas are targeted and how those decisions are made is also important. Whether the decision is made by the Minister of Industry (who is responsible for SSHRC), or SSHRC’s governing council or peer adjudicators in a researcher-driven competition is important. How members of the governing council are selected and appointed would also be a relevant topic of political debate and action.

But these questions are not directly relevant to whether you apply for an Insight Grant this October or not, nor do they directly concern the peers who sit on the adjudication committees for the grant.



  1. says

    Thanks for this, Jo. Very helpful.

    I have a couple of questions, though, but the Insight Grants and one or two things you mentioned. You referred to a one page “Statement of Alignment”. I’ve just checked the application materials I’ve downloaded just this past month and, well, I don’t see a “SoA”.

    You also mention the priority area of digital economy at SSHRC and in the Fed Budget. And that speaking directly to this is important. That’s what you seem to be saying, correct? I hadn’t thought of reading the fed budget before as part of SSHRCing, but what the heck.

    If your dept is supportive of what you’re doing, and actually wants to house some of its components (research facilities, databases, archives, etc.) as part of the process, how best to convey this in your SSHRC application?

    Lastly, I see the project I am applying for as a continuation of a project that is now coming to a close, and from which I gained a lot, including strong int’l network of colleagues who will all be doing their bit — independent of my SSHRC app — to get their own support. In the past I’ve gained the impression that “continuation” research isn’t seen as “innovative” research. How to best pitch this?

    alright, shall leave it for here. Thanks again, and I hope I haven’t left you with too many questions.


    • says

      You DON’T need to speak to any of the priority areas if they aren’t relevant to your research. That’s important. If one of them is relevant, there’s a place in the application form to say how it’s relevant. If it’s not, just ignore the priority areas.

      Also, SSHRC funds programs of research, which means that if this project builds on what you’ve done previously, this is not only acceptable but a good thing. You still have to demonstrate why it’s significant (through the literature review) and have clear objectives for this phase. Don’t make the mistake of only explaining why it’s the best next step for you. Check out my previous posts on what goes in a good proposal and the common mistakes people make.

      The strong network of colleagues who have their own funding should also be a positive element. Those people can be included in your grant as collaborators who contribute to the intellectual direction of the project and you can budget for meetings between collaborators. Or you can just indicate in the detailed description how this project relates to a bigger project. Use the “previous outputs” section to situate the proposed research in your own research trajectory.

      Good luck. Your questions are similar to ones other people ask so I’m glad you are asking them publicly so others can benefit.

  2. says

    Thanks for all the great information in one place. The only piece I can add is that the current Innovation, Leadership and Prosperity priority has it’s origins in the Federal budget allocation that dedicated new funds to research and training in business, management and finance. One important difference in the two is that social innovation is specifically eligible in the ILP. If your research or training program has the potential to result in a social innovation (especially a social enterprise) , something that addresses a challenging social or human issue in new ways, then you should consider substantiating your application under the ILP priority. As Jo says, if it the priority argument is rejected you are still eligible under the general competition.