Understanding the benefits and outcomes of Canada's public investment in Arctic science and associated community–researcher partnerships represents a significant challenge for government. This paper presents a capital assets-based approach to conceptualising northern research partnership development processes and assessing the potential outcomes. By more explicitly considering the pre- and post-partnership asset levels (that is, social, human, physical, financial and natural assets) for different collaborators, the potential benefits and challenges associated with community–researcher partnerships can be collaboratively assessed. In order to help refine this approach, we conducted a survey of those involved in developing and maintaining community–researcher partnerships across Arctic Canada. Results indicate that the proposed approach could be useful for research funding agencies seeking to better understand partnership outcomes and promote more effective community–researcher interactions. Challenges include adequately capturing the qualitative nature of different capital assets, pointing to future research and policy needs. Better understanding the role of research in northern development has the potential to improve northern research, policy and practice.