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CIHR draft strategic plan generating reaction

July 13, 2009

As I outlined here in May, CIHR has devised a new “strategic plan” that outlines changes in the funding agency’s granting focus, and broadly realigns funding priorities with the Conservative government’s policy priorities. One of the aspects that most concerned me was the increased focus on “end-user” participation in research direction.

While CIHR asked for community feedback, the window for researcher input closed only a couple of weeks after the report was released. The research community doesn’t always work that fast, so members have decided to react in their own ways. The Canadian Society for Immunology, for instance, has published an open letter to CIHR president Dr. Alain Beaudet decrying the changes. The letter is too long to reproduce here, but I’ve quoted a couple of excerpts.

On “end-user” participation in setting research priorities:

We are very much concerned about the statement in the strategic plan that CIHR will align its priorities with the Federal R and D strategy. The plan implies that end users of the fruits of research, such as industry and government should have more say in setting research priorities. While industry and government indeed may have very good ideas about unmet needs and certainly should be making researchers aware of them, it is dangerous and ultimately wasteful to forecast the research projects that will answer those needs. Significant improvements in healthcare have typically come from unexpected quarters. One needs to be very cautious of shifting the research agenda too much to the next big thing or in having too much of the funding aimed at quick fixes to the latest emerging problem… As it is impossible to predict accurately which research will lead to the paradigm shift of tomorrow, one needs to fund a large pool of discovery research long term and be highly selective in which projects one can afford to translate to the clinic. Therefore, it is critical to keep in mind, that while some strategic funding to tackle pressing problems is important, this must not be done at the expense of a well-funded program of investigator driven research in diverse areas of biology and biomedicine, that will lead to science moving forward in unpredictable ways and contribute to the long term health of science and medicine in our country.

On the Canadian research funding situation, generally:

[As] has been the case historically, NIH funding is about 30x the CIHR level, despite a population difference of only 9.3x. Yet CIHR wants to do everything that the NIH does and more. There have been many recent articles in the Globe and Mail and elsewhere about the disconnect between new funding for research personnel (Canada Research Chairs, Canada research scholarships) and CFI funding for infrastructure without the necessary increase in core funding of operating costs through the federal granting agencies. This results in excellent people and equipment going to waste for lack of operating funds. CIHR cannot spend its limited core research funding aligning with the government research priority of the day or the latest crisiswhether it be an isotope shortage or a new strain of influenza; these areas should and do receive separate funding. While it may well be appropriate for CIHR to handle these special funding situations, these strategic areas should not become the primary focus of CIHR at the expense of the core CIHR mandate to fund excellence in research and training in health research.

With thanks to Dr. Laurence Moran, whose Sandwalk blog brought the letter to my attention, and who provides insightful commentary at his site:

Government funding agencies should be advising the government, not vice versa. Government funding agencies should have an “arms length” relationship to the government of the day. Scientists should have more input.

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