- Top universities raise concerns about the Canadian Institutes of Health Research
Top universities raise concerns about the Canadian Institutes of Health Research
The heads of Canada’s biggest research universities have added their voices to criticism of reforms at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, calling for a moratorium on further changes until an independent review is held.
The call for action by the group of universities — known as U15 — was outlined in a letter sent earlier this year to CHIR, and recently obtained by Postmedia. The letter was sent amid growing concerns that changes to funding programs and the peer review system at Canada’s main health research funding body have been badly designed, are crippling some researchers and are driving some scientists out of the country.
Some of that criticism has been directed at CIHR president Alain Beaudet, who argues that underfunding, not reforms, is the source of problems for researchers.
This week’s federal budget could ease some concerns. It provided a funding bump of $30 million a year to CIHR, and new money to two other research-funding councils. But more importantly, say scientists, the budget signalled a shift to basic science away from the applied science focus of recent years and launched a review of the entire complex Canadian research funding ecosystem.
Top researchers say they hope the review will lead to greater co-ordination and stability for researchers, especially for young researchers, many of whom have been devastated by lack of access to research dollars.
The U15 letter echoed some of the concerns previously raised about CIHR reforms. It was sent to Beaudet in late January and signed by the heads of the universities of Alberta, British Columbia, Calgary, Montreal and Manitoba, as well as Queen’s, Dalhousie, Laval University, McGill, McMaster and by the University of Ottawa’s Allan Rock.
“It has become evident in recent months that there are serious concerns among members of the Canadian research community about the changes CIHR has made to its peer review process and in implementing broader reforms,” the letter reads. “… it is clear that there remain many unanswered questions and areas of concern.”
The group urged Beaudet to:
- Place a temporary moratorium on further changes to research funding programs.
- Convene a national health research summit to discuss changes in research funding programs “and the actions that have been taken and will be taken to address the concerns of the research community.”
- Commission an independent, third-party international review of the changes to research funding programs and peer review mechanisms.
- “Ensure that every effort is made to avoid loss of continuity of funding for research programs as a result of changes to the program structures.”
The organization of universities said it would be willing to support CIHR’s request for “extraordinary funding” from the federal government, noting that “CIHR’s overall funding level has made the transition to the new program and funding structure more challenging than you originally anticipated.”
In response to the letter, Beaudet agreed that CIHR has faced “serious underfunding issues.”
He added: “The impact of this underfunding has been erroneously interpreted by some as resulting from the reforms, which in turn has increased the angst amongst stakeholders.”
But he said the changes being undertaken by CIHR “are essential for CIHR to meet its parliamentary mandate.” That mandate, he said, includes supporting excellence in health research in both basic and applied science. It is not clear what the federal review of science funding means to its mandate.
Beaudet responded to U15 that the CIHR has no plans for any further changes to funding programs in the immediate future. He also said the CIHR would be pleased to participate in a research summit and that it is already evaluated independently every five years. Some of its program changes were recommended by an international review, and the next review, he said, will look at the impact of changes at the CIHR.
Beaudet added that the CIHR is “taking every possible step” to ensure there is no loss in continuity of funding due to changes but that more money is needed.
It is not clear how much the federal budget will change the outlook for health researchers, but several said they are encouraged.
The CIHR has been the focus of growing frustration and anger by researchers in recent months, who say badly thought-out reforms, and a failure to listen to concerns, have made an already bad situation worse for many Canadian researchers.
Scientists have told Postmedia that morale is low and that some might have to close their labs because they have little prospect of getting grants to continue their work. And one Ottawa researcher says he can no longer in good conscience advise his students, or even his children, to pursue careers in science.
Leading Canadian stem cell researcher Michael Rudnicki has called for management changes at CIHR. Others say management style at the agency has worsened an already bad situation for researchers.
CIHR, along with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Social sciences and Humanities Research Council, acknowledged the difficulties facing young researchers in a submission the granting agencies made during pre-budget consultations.
Funding that hasn’t kept pace with inflation has had a disproportionate effect on early career researchers, said the granting agencies, “and is creating barriers for early career investigators to launch successful research careers.”