The Canadian Institutes of Health Research unveiled a major overhaul of its funding process and peer-review system in February, drawing mixed reviews from health researchers. The proposed changes are intended to address a number of “stresses and strains” that have been building in the system over the years, said Jane Aubin, CIHR’s vice-president, research. The changes are principally designed to simplify and streamline the grant application process for investigator-led research and make it less time-consuming for researchers. They are also meant to increase support for early-career researchers and for new and emerging areas of research. As well, they’re designed to address shortcomings in the peer-review system.
The biggest change is a proposal to create two funding streams – a “programmatic scheme” and a “project scheme” – to replace the funding agency’s current suite of 12 large and small programs. The programmatic scheme is designed to provide stable, long-term funding to experienced researchers with a proven track record, to give them the opportunity to pursue riskier research over a longer time period and to reduce the need for researchers to apply for multiple grants to fund a single project. In addition, the programmatic scheme would have a separate funding stream for early-career researchers who show great promise. The program grants would be for seven years for seasoned investigators and five years for junior researchers. The average value of the grant would be about $300,000 a year.
For the project scheme, meanwhile, applications would be judged on the quality and originality of the idea, rather than on the researcher’s experience. The grant would be for a period of three to five years and its average value about $125,000 annually.
“This isn’t a tweaking but a major rework,” said Donald Weaver, a professor of chemistry and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Clinical Neuroscience at Dalhousie University. Many of the proposals in the document have merit, “but I think ultimately the proof is going to be in the details and how the whole thing is finally implemented,” he said. Dr. Weaver said he’d welcome a move to a simpler funding process with two major funding schemes and a longer funding term for experienced researchers. Currently, “you just get one grant approved and you immediately start working on its renewal,” he said. The proposed changes would enable researchers “to take projects to newer depths and I think that is an absolutely wonderful feature of the proposal.”
CIHR supported 3,000 principal investigators through its investigator-led funding programs in 2010-11. The council also pays for targeted projects in specific research areas identified by the council. These targeted projects wouldn’t change under the proposals. The council also wants to revamp its peer review process to make less work for referees and make it easier to recruit them. Under its proposal, prospective members of a new “college of reviewers” would be offered a non-financial incentive or recognition to join. CIHR explained that over the years, as both the number and complexity of funding applications have increased, reviewers have been more reluctant to volunteer. In 2010-11, it recruited 2,000 reviewers to assess 6,500 grant applications.
The council would formally train referees to ensure that reviews are carried out in a fair and consistent manner. In a 2010 survey, 44 percent of CIHR applicants and grantees said they were dissatisfied with the quality of peer-review decisions; 58 percent were dissatisfied with the consistency of the reviews. Researchers have also said that the peer-review system fails to adequately fund research from across CIHR disciplines and from new and evolving research areas. Some have said the current pool of reviewers isn’t qualified to assess applications from multidisciplinary and emerging fields.
To reduce the workload both for reviewers and applicants, CIHR proposes to introduce a multi-phased competition process. It would reduce the review time at each stage and the number of applicants that move to the final review stage. It is considering conducting fewer face-to-face reviews and more by video conference. Dr. Weaver praised CIHR’s proposal for a multi-phase review system that will weed out unsuccessful applications earlier, saving researchers time. But he said he found the document vague and “troubling” in part, including one section that calls for researchers to pursue collaborative research and research that produces “findings that are more likely to be relevant to and used by end users.”
Dr. Aubin of CIHR said the agency isn’t signaling an intention to force researchers to conduct specific types of research. “This is an investigator initiated program,” she said. “I think maybe that line is being misinterpreted by some as saying that’s all we want to support.” Some universities and research institutes, she added, are concerned about a proposal requiring applicants funded under the programmatic scheme to secure a “commitment of support” from their institution. “Does that mean a big bunch of matching support? It does not,” Dr. Aubin said.
Institutional support could include release from teaching, salaries and infrastructure, she said. Janice Graham, a CIHR-funded medical anthropologist at Dalhousie and past president of the Canadian Anthropology Society, commended the report for acknowledging the shortcomings in the current system. But she was discouraged that the redesign did little to address the concerns of social science and humanities health researchers who typically receive a small fraction of CIHR funding. Many of these researchers no longer qualify for funding by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and were hoping CIHR would use this opportunity to address their research interests and needs.
She questioned the council’s move to provide longer-term funding with less accountability for researchers based on their track record, a move that she said would ensure a substantial portion of funding continues to go to those it has always gone to. This would do little to further the council’s goal of encouraging high-risk research, she said, “the kind that might challenge understandings and socio-political agendas.”
CIHR will hold consultations on the proposals until the end of April or early May and will use the responses it receives to make improvements to the redesign. The council hopes to decide on the major design features by June, to issue a more detailed document in the fall and then to roll out the changes gradually. “We’re not trying to mess up an excellent research community in Canada,” said Dr. Aubin. “We’re trying to enhance it.” The first competition under the new funding structure would be held in the spring of 2013, giving researchers a year to prepare. The first funded researchers under the new scheme would be announced in 2014.