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In my opinion

It’s time for social scientists to apply for CIHR grants

The upcoming program reform represents an immense opportunity for those who are still reeling from SSHRC’s 2009 decision to carve out new success at CIHR.


In 2009, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council declared it would no longer fund any research fitting the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s mandate.

SSHRC had always been the primary source of support for many forms of social and cultural research, irrespective of subject. But in light of budget constraints, addressing overlap between the two federal funding bodies’ mandates was seen as an easy way to ensure maximum value for taxpayer dollars. With CIHR’s operating budget more than double SSHRC’s, long-term support for this type of critical and qualitative health research could be more easily absorbed by CIHR, where it would be less of a financial stressor.

Many academics, however, did not share this view; instead, the announcement caused something of a commotion at Canadian universities when it was released. Although the change affected only a handful of sub-disciplines, it became a larger issue because of the qualitative difference in funding cultures between the two councils.

Grant applications to CIHR met with success by recognizing its strong focus on clinical relevance, commercial impact and interaction with non-academic decision-makers. Those stuck between SSHRC and CIHR faced one of two fates: learn to master the nuances of a new sponsor, framing the design and style of grant submissions to match the target council, or fall between the cracks and see their research programs decimated.

A few key areas of Canadian research were in danger of being abandoned (one group declared it the end of medical anthropology in Canada), with some academics unable or unwilling to quickly change their research programs. Much of the resulting anger was based on certain presumptions about CIHR’s programming and a belief among SSHRC scholars that the council would not adapt to the nuances of social science and humanities research or modes of inquiry.

It’s true that the committee structure of CIHR’s Open Operating Grant Program reinforces a level of cultural inertia that makes it difficult for high-risk or non-traditional research to find success; however, in many ways the ex-SSHRC group’s failure to engage with CIHR due to expectations of low success rates has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Fear of failure led to relatively low submission rates and showed an unwillingness to work with CIHR to address the issues. The engagement by former SSHRC researchers with CIHR has increased slightly since 2009, but has remained very low compared to other disciplines or sectors such as select areas in the natural sciences and engineering that also apply to CIHR.

But now, there is a possibility for large-scale change. Due to its own internal stressors, CIHR recently said it would reform its Open Operating Grant and other open programs. The upcoming Foundation and Project scheme programs represent an immense opportunity for those who are still reeling from SSHRC’s 2009 decision to carve out new success at CIHR.

The reforms address many previously voiced concerns about evaluation. The proposed new review model – virtual, with less focus on a tight group of reviewers – will do much to help abolish various cultural barriers found in the old committee system. Similarly, more reviewers per application will help ensure more consistent results for those applying from underrepresented fields. The move to multi-phase submissions, with early phases less onerous to complete, should make the task of grant writing and reviewing for CIHR programs much easier for all involved.

The primary key to success, however, will be ex-SSHRC researcher engagement with the college of reviewers – a massive undertaking by CIHR to create a new national adjudication body with its own internal structure and volunteer leadership. Once complete, this organization will be responsible for assigning reviewers to applications and ensuring its constituents have the appropriate expertise to competently evaluate funding requests that CIHR receives.

Participation with the college of reviewers will ensure underrepresented groups have a direct hand in informing new review cultures, and that should help remove many traditional barriers that prevented previously well-funded SSHRC-style research from being successful at CIHR.

The opportunity these CIHR reforms offer those affected by the 2009 decision should not be ignored. A reorganization of this size has the potential to ensure all areas of Canadian health research are supported. The only way this will be realized, however, is if affected researchers move past prior negative experiences and begin to engage with CIHR’s new programming.

Mr. Halbersma is a grants officer in Western University’s research development and services office.

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  1. Jim Woodgett / October 9, 2014 at 09:00

    Mr. Halbersma is entirely correct in his recommendation to those social scientists who work in health related areas who were abandoned by SSHRC but his point raises a significant issue with the new CIHR reforms. The new system will rank applications in fields such that the success rate will be similar regardless of the type of field. Perhaps this is a good thing as it will cause funds to move towards less mature or established fields compared to others. It also means that CIHR funds will be spread even more evenly and grant applications will be funded with lower merit in some areas than others (since score is less important than ranking). Smaller areas will be disproportionately disadvantaged regardless of their merit on the global stage. Will Canada become average at everything?

    The key issue though, for social scientists, was that in 2009 SSHRC decided to make all research in this area that was related to health ineligible. Meanwhile, there was no transfer of funds or increase in funds at CIHR to accommodate this change (similar picket fencing has occurred at NSERC). As a consequence of this, plus the very different review culture and historic record at CIHR, health related social scientists did very poorly.

    But health-related social scientists should not get too excited. The CIHR reforms are being introduced without any additional transitional funding. The last open competition (Spring 2014) was associated with an increased application pressure due to the suspension of the Fall open competition and resulted in a record low success rate. The next open competition in Spring 2015 is anticipated to have an even higher application pressure (the Fall 2015 competition is also suspended) and these applicants will no doubt be joined by a swath of Stage 1 Foundation scheme applications (estimated at up to 1000). Some estimates of success rates are as low as 10%. Hence, the next couple of years are going to be challenging for everyone applying to CIHR. Bloodbath is an apt metaphor.

    Perhaps, given that there is rumour of an end of year surplus*, the entire research community could get behind lobbying for more Federal money for research so that the country can actually sustain internationally competitive research programs?

    *tricouncil funding is 25% below levels in 2007 when inflation is taken into account, not to mention the forced expulsion of health social scientists from SSHRC to CIHR.

  2. Jim Dunn / October 9, 2014 at 10:30

    It’s true that CIHR cited lack of application pressure from SSHRC scholars as the reason changes to their adjudication practices were not needed, but there are some legitimate and critical differences that put SSHRC applicants at a distinct disadvantage. Among these was differences in relative emphasis of theory and methods in applications. But even more difficult to overcome was the way a researcher’s track record was read in the social sciences and the health sciences. Some of the most prominent social scientists in the sociology of health, for example, would have far fewer publications than epidemiologists working in the same area, because papers are much longer and the sociologist would often publish alone or with just a small group. A proposal by a lone scholar or small group of sociologists, in addition, would be criticized because they didn’t have a statistician on the team, or someone with specific expertise on a specific aspect of the proposal.

    When social scientists complained, they were completely stonewalled by CIHR. Their response was “we don’t have to change, we always accepted this kind of research” and “we will ensure your proposal is reviewed by a group of your peers”. The former was disingenuous, and the latter was just untrue.

    It’s hard to say exactly who will win and lose in the new CIHR reforms, but I don’t share the same optimistic outlook that the author does. We shall see.

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