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Draft CIHR strategic plan – targeted research with end-users

May 8, 2009

The CIHR has released a draft of its strategic plan for 2009-2014 and is asking researchers to participate in “web-consultations” by means of a survey. The highlights are a renewed commitment to this government’s policy of prioritizing funding and making research more socially and economically relevant. CIHR lays out specific areas for prioritized funding based on government research priorities, and suggests Canada’s participation in the stem cell consortium may not be dead. More controversially, CIHR suggests it will increasingly focus on funding research that involves end-users of the fruits of that research. It seems to me that this is likely to move CIHR from funding basic research towards funding applied research. A more detailed analysis of the document follows.

The plan includes a foreword by CIHR President Dr. Alain Beaudet which, disappointingly, ventures into the political sphere by equating the Canadian government’s support for science with the American’s:

CIHR is unveiling its second strategic plan during a period of unprecedented uncertainty. It has, therefore, been particularly rewarding to see the widespread conviction on both sides of the 49th parallel that investment in research is a vital part of stimulating our economy and our society back to a state of prosperity and of our future growth and competitiveness.

Perhaps they mean the conviction by researchers who are protesting cuts to CIHR’s funding allocation… Nonetheless:

[this] Strategic Plan… is the product of widespread consultations with members of the health research community, careful assessment of CIHR‘s strengths and weaknesses, ongoing deliberation about where CIHR would like to be in five years and a sober assessment of the resources available to get us there.

Hmm, “sober assessment of the resources available” – sounds more like it.

The Plan itself is the product of extensive consultation with the member Institutes that constitute the CIHR, with CIHR’s advisory board, and with researchers across the country. It is divided into four strategic directions:

  1. investing in world-class excellence;
  2. addressing health and health system research priorities;
  3. accelerating the capture of health and economic benefits of health research;
  4. achieving organizational excellence, fostering ethics and demonstrating impact.

These strategic directions are aligned with the Government’s Science and Technology Strategy, and the plan background references many of the same background data as the recent STIC report. Namely, Canada does well in basic research but needs to do better at translating that research into innovation.

The body of the plan speaks in detail about each of the four strategic directions. The first, investing in excellence, proposes nothing surprising – training and retaining world-class researchers, better peer-review panels, more international collaboration and collaboration with agencies like NSERC and SSHRC, among others. CIHR emphasizes the importance of collaboration:

“Health research is no longer an individual activity; it has become a team activity. CIHR has long recognized this and has developed specific programs to promote and encourage national collaboration.

This statement seems rather ironic given the cancellation of the popular CIHR Open Team grant program. The irony continues:

insufficient efforts have been made towards encouraging Canadian health scientists to take part in, or lead, large international research consortia (with the notable exceptions of the Cancer Stem Cell and Structural Genomics Consortia).

Maybe there are reasons Canadians don’t lead large, international consortia…

The second strategic direction echoes the government’s policy on focusing research into selected priority areas. Echoing the STIC report, the CIHR plan states: “As a relatively small country on the global stage, Canada must select where it makes its mark“. The CIHR plan will focus on priorities identified by the government’s Science and Technology Strategy and a previous STIC report in 2007. CIHR describes how it will address the relevant priorities (in bold):

Regenerative medicine
Support implementation of the Cancer Stem Cell Consortium; develop
nanotechnology applications for health
Neuroscience
Lead integrated addictions strategy, develop new programs for brain disorders
and injuries
Health in an aging population
Support longitudinal aging cohort studies, mobility in aging and cognitive
impairment studies
Biomedical engineering and medical technologies
Support research at the interface between the biological and the physical
and applied sciences
Water
Develop new and improved detection tools, improve water surveillance,
investigate links between pathogens and chronic disease
Climate change adaptation
Set priorities concerning the human dimensions of environmental and Arctic
research. Develop a tri-council global health initiative addressing adaptation
to environment and climate change
Electronic health records
Develop frameworks to allow for stakeholder input into the development of
effective health information systems and the secondary use of data by
decision makers and researchers.

CIHR addresses funding for the stem cell consortium explicitly here – I wonder if this is a CIHR decision, or whether the federal government is backtracking from the bad press it received for canning the Genome Canada funding for the project. The government also addresses the need to increase research into challenges facing the health care system.

The third strategic direction is devoted to increasing the knowledge translation from research to “health and economic benefits”. Here, CIHR seems to suggest it will be moving away from funding basic science and will increasingly expect applied science to play a prominent role in the process:

In the coming years, CIHR will increasingly focus on ‘solutions-based research’ that involves collaboration between researchers and users in the research process. This begins with shaping research questions that will generate solutions to pressing problems.

I’m not sure who the “users” are for research into causes and mechanisms of Alzheimer’s, for instance – does this mean such projects are less likely to be funded? It seems that requiring end users as collaborators will inevitably shift CIHR funding from basic research to applied science.

The fourth strategic direction addresses internal CIHR organization: plans to make the organization more transparent and accountable, etc.

Scientists can then access a web form to provide feedback (here). The web feedback is mostly “do you agree or disagree with this section of our plan”, though there are a few spots to leave feedback. This is an opportunity for researchers to directly get involved, so I encourage you to scan the report (you can use my handy executive summary here as a reference) and provide your feedback.

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