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CIHR proceeds with changes to its peer review process

Medical research council will phase in the changes, with first pilot project to start in 2014.

By ROSANNA TAMBURRI | FEB 20 2013

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research will proceed with a proposed redesign of its funding and peer review processes but at a slower pace than originally anticipated. The first competition under the new funding scheme is to be held in the fall of 2014, a year later than planned.

“We definitely heard ‘don’t go too fast,’” said Jane Aubin, CIHR vice-president of research and chief scientific officer. The granting council spent several months last year soliciting feedback from researchers and institutions on the proposed changes. “There were a variety of responses from ‘We love it’ all the way through to ‘We hate it’ and everything in between,” Dr. Aubin said. The council used the feedback to modify several elements of the new design.

She said researchers showed strong support for the council’s plan to streamline and simplify the grant application process for CIHR’s investigator-led funding programs. The new system will consist of two major funding streams: a “programmatic or foundation scheme” and a “project scheme.”

Applications under the project scheme will be judged primarily on the quality and originality of the idea. The grant will be for a one-to-five-year period and range in value from about $25,000 to $750,000. Two project scheme competitions will be held each year, but researchers may submit only one application annually.

The track record of the investigator will be the main criterion for judging applications under the foundation scheme. These longer-term grants are designed to allow both established and up-and-coming researchers the flexibility to pursue riskier research projects and spend less time writing and applying for grants. Experienced researchers with a proven track record will qualify for a seven year grant while promising, early-career investigators will qualify for a five-year grant. The foundation scheme grants range from about $50,000 to $1.5 million. One foundation scheme competition will be held each year.

The changes will be phased in gradually. The first pilot foundation-scheme competition is to launch next year, with the application deadline in the fall of 2014. A second pilot foundation-scheme competition will be held in 2015 and two project scheme competitions are planned for 2016. Additional modifications may be made as the system is rolled out.

Once the transition to the new funding arrangement is complete, CIHR expects to support about 750 foundation grants and 2,200 project grants, in all about the same number of principal investigators that CIHR currently funds. The council also funds projects in targeted research areas that it identifies; these targeted programs won’t be affected by the changes.

The peer review system used to adjudicate the funding applications will also undergo a major overhaul. CIHR has already begun work to establish a new “college of reviewers” that will be responsible not only for conducting reviews but also for recruiting and retaining members and providing mentoring and training. It’s expected that experienced reviewers will mentor new recruits to the college. CIHR will work with universities and research institutes to come up with rewards and incentives to recruit and retain referees. Established researchers who hold a seven-year foundation grant will be required to be members of the college as a condition of receiving the grant.

CIHR currently has a roster of more than 5,000 peer reviewers. It hopes to increase the number to 8,000, partly by adopting the use of virtual reviews that allow the granting council to recruit more international reviewers.

Dr. Aubin said CIHR received “polarized responses” to its plan to adopt virtual reviews, with some researchers questioning whether remote reviews conducted by video-conferencing would be as effective as traditional reviews. “But there’s lots of evidence that virtual reviews can actually give better adjudication than face-to-face [reviews],” Dr. Aubin said.

Applications under the project scheme will go through a two-step review process. The first will be conducted remotely and the second face-to-face. Applications under the foundation scheme will go through a three-step adjudication process, the first two done remotely and the final one face-to-face.

Some universities and research institutes had expressed concern about a new requirement that grant recipients secure a formal commitment of support from their institution. CIHR had considered enforcing the same requirement for both funding schemes but in the end decided to implement it only for foundation scheme grants. Dr. Aubin said she and CIHR President Alain Beaudet will continue to meet with administrative leaders throughout the spring to identify what would constitute appropriate institutional support. “In our minds, it’s not about CIHR dictating what CIHR expects from academic institutions,” she said, adding “[but] if CIHR is making a seven year commitment, presumably that has implications for the academic home.”

In the long term, CIHR plans to conduct research to assess the reliability, consistency and fairness of its new peer review process and report its findings to the international research community.

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