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CIHR Operating Grants Raise Protest

January 6, 2011

Without much fanfare, nearly 1,800 people have signed a petition protesting the historically low success rates in the individual CIHR Operating Grants competition.

From the petition:

The percentage of successful applicants is about 15 % of the grants submitted. This means that very good grants are no longer fundable and that there is no guarantee that a grant rated excellent by the reviewers will be funded.

The petition cites research suggesting that the peer-review process is not precise enough to accurately award grants based on quality at such low approval rates.  Many applications rated “excellent” will not be funded, and those that are funded will be successful largely by chance. The signatories rightly lament this state of affairs and urge the government to rectify it.

The main reason this is happening, it seems to me, is that CIHR is increasingly “hands-on” in its management of research. There is a significant shift away from the “researcher-based” funding model – where we trust smart, productive people with good ideas to continue being smart, productive and full of good ideas. Instead, we’re moving toward a “research-based” funding model. Here, research is determined by government policy, and is directed through an increasing array of targeted funding programs. In place of individual creativity of our researchers and evaluation by learned peers, research areas and approaches are determined by bureaucrats in a doomed attempt to direct outcomes.

This isn’t simply about reduced funding, it’s about a change in how basic research is supported in Canada. Increasing the proportion of funding allocated through specific and targeted programs removes the creativity and unexpected discovery fundamental to basic research and risks turning creative academic research into a manager-dominated, risk-averse bureaucracy of incremental progress and outcome reports.

No doubt there are significant cuts coming in this spring’s budget; it is not yet clear whether research funding will be on the chopping block. It is important for researchers to make our voices heard for sustainable funding. But it’s also important to pay attention to these broader changes occurring and to make sure we protect the foundations of Canada’s basic research system.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. January 6, 2011 15:50

    Hey Rob – definitely a good topic and the point you raise concerning “directing” research is a very good one.

    The Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars executive was also looking at this petition and came across the following response from CIHR which challenges some of the content in the petition:

    The other concerning point regarding the petition is the anonymity, typically I’d rely on those that have a sponsor organization or at least a single person who is willing to stand behind what they write online.

    Minor point regarding your posts title: CIHR researchers are not necessarily the people protesting here as anyone can sign an online petition.

    Despite these items though, there is certainly a fair amount of excellent research that does not get funded and keeping our eyes and ears open to the actions of the CIHR (like the direct calls for research) and the other granting councils (like SSHRC’s recent escapade with business related research) is certainly warranted.

    • Rob Annan permalink*
      January 6, 2011 16:11

      Hi David,

      Thanks for the comment. You’re right to point out that not all the signatories are necessarily health researchers. I will clarify that.

      Thanks for reminding me about the CIHR response. Unfortunately, the 24% approval rate that they quote includes one-year bridge grants. The CIHR release says so itself – their target is to fund 400-450 grants per competition, and only if you count one year grants do you get the 1,000 (23%) that they quote. This suggests the percentage of full-term grants awarded is closer to the 15% quoted in the petition. I’m not sure why the CIHR decided to issue a public press release saying “their facts are just wrong, just ignore them” – it has certainly raised hackles in the community.

      I know it’s cold comfort, but the person who launched the petition is actively promoting it among the community by email, though for whatever reason has decided to stay anonymous on the web and I don’t feel comfortable publishing their name. I will note, however, that a number of signatories have not only signed their names, but included their experiences and sentiments.

      Again, thanks for the comment – important to discuss these issues!

  2. Jim permalink
    January 6, 2011 16:37

    The defensive rebuttal to the petition by CIHR has done more harm than good. Researchers sitting on panels know the numbers as do the applicants. If they wish to count 1 year/100K bridge grants, at least they should be pro-rated for their term and used with a multiplier of 0.3 or so. The 5 year review of CIHR is in process and we can only hope that the reviwers will take note of the self-destructive trend. Active lobbying in the UK shielded the MRC from more draconian cuts (but didn’t stop the 3-fold increase in tuition). Times are tough – we recognize that – so perhaps it’s time to rethink the policies at CIHR. It’s individual scientists that make the difference.

  3. SpongeBob permalink
    January 6, 2011 20:54

    The very low success rate, and the resulting semi-random
    attribution of funding, is of course worrying. If you also take
    into consideration the fact that “CIHR intends to focus
    increasingly on solution-based research that involves collaboration
    between researchers and users” (CIHR Strategic Plan 2009, p. 24),
    the situation becomes tragic. It means that the happy few getting
    funds will have more and more to aim at elusive “solution-based”
    research targets decided by committees, consultants, and other
    rain-makers. Quality research depends on the continuity of funding.
    It allows the building of true expertise. This process is long and
    tedious and the result is fragile as any gap in the funding can be
    fatal. If money is to flow from one fad to another in order to
    “shape research questions that will generate solutions to pressing
    problems” (ibid.), one can certainly question the soundness of the
    whole process.

  4. January 7, 2011 09:20

    You raise some good points, and ones that are not well
    understood in the research community, as demonstrated by parts of
    David’s response. “SSHRC’s recent escapade with business related
    research” is a very good example of what you are talking about.
    Although most of the protest focused on SSHRC, the decision was
    actually made BEFORE the money got to SSHRC. That money was already
    targetted for business research and the only decisions SSHRC could
    make about it was what kinds of grants to give (student
    fellowships, standard research grants, big collaborative grants,
    etc) and who to give them to. This has happened at all 3 federal
    granting councils for over 10 years now. Not one of them has had an
    increase in the core budget (used to fund researcher-driven
    programs). Every dollar of increased research funding over that
    period has been already designated for research in a specific field
    before the granting councils even put the programs together. You
    accurately point out some of the big issues with this approach. And
    that it is the GOVERNMENT’s approach even though it is the funding
    councils who implement it. I suspect that CIHR knows that the 1
    year grants are a band-aid solution but it is not in their
    interests politically to say so publically. The bigger point is
    that researchers have to stop blaming the councils and start
    looking at the real problem. Research is underfunded. And an
    increasing proportion of all research funding is targetted. There
    are real consequences of this. (also, the situation is worse in
    other countries like the US and UK).

  5. January 7, 2011 18:05

    I immediately replied directly back to the mass e-mail
    rebuttal to the petition that the Scientific Council of the CIHR
    that sent out on December 16, 2010, but I yet to hear a response. I
    pointed out to them that the information that they provided in
    their e-mail message related to total success rates with the whole
    Open Operating Grant Competitions. Interestingly, the graph they
    provided shows that the total number of approved grant applications
    has actually declined over the last 6 years, despite the funding of
    more one year grants recently. I questioned whether the CIHR could
    provide a more specific breakdown of the success rates with respect
    to renewals, new grants, termination grants and other types of
    grants. I also wanted to know how does this compare with the total
    funding and success rates for other initiatives from CIHR,
    including the Strategic Research Initiatives Program. In any event,
    a 30% decline in the competition success rates from 33% to 23% for
    funding all CIHR OOG applications over the last 6 years is nothing
    to be proud of. I seriously doubt that the number of principal
    investigators has increased in Canada by this amount during the
    same period.

  6. Rick permalink
    February 1, 2011 11:37

    The CIHR will undoergo its 10 year review this year. Although a survey has been conducted through the community, to what extent will opinions be “filtered” before being shared with the international review panel? What can effectively be done to ensure that they are made aware that the current policies (and funding rates) are detrimental to research development in Canada. Also, with the increasing demands by peers review committees for “preliminary results” the CIHR is not funding proposals but nearly (if not entirely) completed projects. What is stunning, however, is that prelim data is expected from new investigators that do not even have an operational lab!


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