Message from the Chief Scientist: Adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic

I would like to wish you all an excellent start to the summer! I hope everyone is in good spirits despite the exceptional period we're going through. Premier François Legault may have put Québec on hold in mid-March, but I often say that we've never worked harder for so many good reasons.  

I'd especially like to thank the staff of the Fonds de recherche du Québec (FRQ) in Québec and Montréal, who very quickly and efficiently transitioned to teleworking. March and April have always been busy periods for the FRQ with the end of the fiscal year, preparations for the meetings of the boards of directors and awards and grants approvals for the fall competitions. Overall, everything went smoothly, even if we had to push back some of the funding announcements by a few weeks at the government's request. The situation is now back to normal, and I'd like to congratulate all the winners. The FRQ are currently working to launch the fall 2020 competitions, and the pre-announcements should be posted on our websites soon. 

With the approval of the boards of directors of the three FRQ, we confirmed automatic one-year funding extensions for all the strategic clusters, networks and research centres and institutes in an effort to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic and closing of the universities, colleges and research centres and institutes. We are currently in discussions with authorities to better support our trainees and masters, PhD and postdoc scholarship holders nearing the end of their programs who were directly affected by the closure of the academic training centres. We hope to provide an update soon. 

An agile community and the leadership of the FRQ

I was very impressed by researchers' and student researchers' responses to the pandemic. Many acted very swiftly and came up with innovative solutions to reduce the COVID-19 pandemic's short and longer-term impacts. New collaborations were developed in a range of research fields. The FRQ were very involved in these activities and recommended the assembly of a tripartite group with our government department (Ministère de l'Économie et de l'Innovation, MEI) and the Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux (MSSS). In collaboration with partners including Génome Québec and the Regroupements sectoriels de recherche industrielle (RSRI), the FRQ-MEI-MSSS work group received and reviewed over 700 research proposals in connection with the pandemic. The initial announcements were made a few weeks ago by Minister Fitzgibbon and Minister McCann. Because we must pursue these interdepartmental and interorganizational collaborations, a permanent FRQ-MEI-MSSS group was created. 

The FRQ are also playing an active role in the development of the Québec COVID-19 Biobank, which is the very first of its kind in Canada (see press release for more details). Sample collection began in late March. At the outcome of discussions with our federal and provincial colleagues, funding for the initiative was secured for the next three years. The Biobank is a valuable resource that should help elucidate the pathophysiology of the virus and its many impacts on our society.  

At the urging of Carole Jabet, scientific director of the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Santé (FRQS), the FRQ created the Réseau québécois COVID (see press release) to federate and channel an intersectoral research program on COVID-19 in the years to come. We have also committed to funding research projects on the impact of COVID-19 on seniors and the digitization of distance education and teaching, as well as our very popular participative bird watching project. More funding announcements in partnership with a number of government departments are expected soon. 

I also sit on several working groups in Québec and Canada, including the CanCOVID governance committee, whose website provides a wealth of information on many aspects of the pandemic.  

Finally, when we announced the closing of our offices on March 13, we created the La science dans la lutte contre la COVID-19 : restez bien informés webpage in the Chief Scientist's website to communicate relevant information during the pandemic (Québec research projects supported by the federal and Québec governments, FRQ initiatives, calls to contribute to research, credible sources of information, tips to avoid misinformation and my many media appearances). An additional webpage, COVID-19 : Mesures et programmes, on the respective websites of the three Fonds inform the scientific and student communities of the FRQ's decisions on programs and more.

Preparing for post-COVID-19

Of course, there are other topics of concern beyond COVID-19, and it is critical that we continue our activities and funding in all research sectors. There have been extensive discussions with our authorities and the boards of directors. Science and research are essential to the Québec of tomorrow. In many ways, our centres, institutes and groups constitute our knowledge SMEs, since they train new experts and generate benefits. I am convinced that research will significantly contribute to the economic recovery. As has been said many times, investing in research is beneficial from the economic and social perspectives in the short, medium and long terms. We welcome your feedback. 

Finally, I'd like to mention the launch of the COMPEER platform by our intersectoral student committee—an initiative of which we should be proud. Visit the project website and sign the concordat on the impacts of the pandemic on young researchers. 

This fall will undoubtedly be a busy one with important issues on the table, such as our project on the university of the future, open access to science and, of course, the post-pandemic funding of research, innovation and the FRQ. Until then, I'd like to wish you a wonderful, safe and hopefully unconfined summer. Enjoy your holidays!  
 

Rémi Quirion, O.C., C.Q., PhD, FRSC