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The Black Hole

CIHR grant reform: Speak now or forever hold your peace


Over the last months, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) have conducted an extensive review of their grant programs and have released a document to describe these changes.  In a demonstration of top tier accountability, they have opened a multi-stage and multi-faceted consultation of the programs that I strongly encourage anybody who has any visions of applying for CIHR to read and comment on.  I will follow up this post with my own comments, but for now, I want to point out a few key components so readers know what is on the table and how important it is to read, understand, and (before it’s too late) suggest changes to.  

See President Alain Beaudet’s video message and note the problems that they are attempting to address.

  • What are the strengths of the design that is being considered? 
  • What are the gaps in this design that CIHR should address to ensure a successful implementation?  
  • What challenges do you anticipate as a researcher/peer reviewer in adopting these changes? 

Importantly, these changes will NOT change the training programs which will “continue to be a part of CIHR?s open research funding strategy to support a sustainable pipeline of talented new health researchers into the health research enterprise”.  While no changes are set for graduate students and postdocs, major reforms are set for early/new investigators, so again, please review these proposed changes.
Loosely, the CIHR breaks their proposed new funding structure into two categories: Programmatic and Project-based
According to the document, “programmatic funding supports a broad program of research over a number of years, usually at a fixed rate, but sometimes varying in relation to the type of research and the costs involved. Typically awarded to established investigators, it is considered the best way to support some types of research and researchers, and one of the best models to achieve high-quality, high-impact results. Several recognized funding agencies, such as the Wellcome Trust and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, have successfully implemented programmatic funding schemes with positive results.”

Project-based, however, “supports a defined piece of research with a beginning, middle, and end point. Typically awarded to applicants with the best ideas, this model is well positioned to support incremental research projects, innovative and original research projects, as well as early stage and/or potentially high-risk research projects. Project-based funding has been successfully implemented by the National Institutes of Health (e.g., NIH Research Project Grant Program – R01), and the Gates Foundation (e.g., Grand Challenges in Global Health competition).” 

They have laid out their reasons for both styles and proposed multiple changes to the peer review process that will evaluate them in an attempt to address the problems identified above 

Of particular note for early career researchers, the project scheme will focus on “the quality of the idea with limited information about the track record of the applicant. This would remove some biases/barriers (real or perceived) for new/early career investigators and will be important for CIHR to monitor.”  As for the programmatic scheme, CIHR is “considering a specific stream to support new/early career investigators to ensure that these researchers have an opportunity to build promising programs of research.” 

With respect to peer review, the goal is to reduce the amount of time a reviewer spends reviewing, discussing, and providing feedback on an application by streamlining the process in a number of ways which include:

  • A multi-phased competition process that involves a two-stage screening process prior to face-to-face review. 
  • structured review criteria would provide peer reviewers with clearly defined review criteria and relevant application information in order to evaluate success.
  • Conducting internet-assisted discussions to avoid travel to Ottawa and to facilitate international expert review by supporting cost-effective access to international research leaders. 

Some additional tidbits that popped out in my first run through the document:

  1. Foundation/Programmatic Research grants are intended to support the direct costs of research and do not include a salary support component. 
  2. CIHR has heard concerns regarding the transition to, and the renewal of, Foundation/Programmatic Research grants. At this time, CIHR is considering mechanisms that would provide transitional support to researchers. For those transitioning to the Foundation/Programmatic Research Scheme, CIHR is considering a process to roll-up existing Project grants into the new Foundation/Programmatic Research funding mechanism. For those who are unsuccessful with grant renewal, transitional support may be provided. 
  3. A study conducted in Australia last year estimated the total cost of applications to be over $17,000 (Australian dollars) per application submitted. Although CIHR has not conducted a detailed study, it is estimated that the costs in Canada are similar. 

So – get reading folks – this may be the one time that you have a chance to give your input on the structure of health funding in Canada.  Make your voice heard and please feel free to light up the comments board with your thoughts which I will fold into a response to the CIHR at the end of the month.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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