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Was COVID-19 research funding well spent?

Some academics argue it should have been part of regular funding programs, or more focused.

BY BRIAN OWENS | AUG 09 2021

A full month before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic in March 2020, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research launched a $55 million emergency funding competition to help the scientific community learn all it could about the novel coronavirus. Many Canadian researchers dropped everything to focus their research efforts on the new threat as society – and its universities – went into lockdown.

A second rapid funding round followed in April. Over the past 18 months, CIHR distributed more than $236 million to 556 projects in 23 competitions. Partners like the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and provincial health research foundations contributed another $20 million. None of the funding was diverted from other programs; it was all new money.

While the first round of funding was completed in just four weeks compared to the usual 12- to 18-month timeline for a new competition, and the research community pivoted quickly to adapt, some Canadian academics question whether creating a new, specific funding program for COVID-19 was the right choice.

Paola Marignani, a molecular biologist at Dalhousie University, says the extra money might have been better spent by simply adding it to the agency’s regular open competitions. That infusion of cash could have boosted grant success rates back up to their historic levels of 30 per cent, and would inevitably lead to some discoveries relevant to the pandemic, as well as others that would help against future novel diseases, and other more common diseases like cancer and diabetes that will still be around after the pandemic is over, says Dr. Marignani.

“I work with adenoviruses, which are used in some of the vaccines, but I’m not going to switch over my cancer and basic biology programs just to chase COVID[-19] money,” she says.

Nathalie Grandvaux, a virologist at the Université de Montréal, says more funding for basic research is always needed, but it would have been very difficult for Canadian researchers to be able to address any questions about the coronavirus without fast, specific grants, because their labs were not sufficiently funded to be able respond to the pandemic simply by reorienting their teams. “We paid the price for the lack of funding in the past,” she says.

Many academics acknowledge that the political pressure to respond to the pandemic made it inevitable that any new money would have to be directed towards COVID-19. “It would be difficult for the government to say that they are going to invest $1 billion in a long-term strategy, and not the pandemic,” says Jim Woodgett, a cell biologist at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, a patient care, teaching and research centre affiliated with the University of Toronto. “There’s a level of expediency needed that precludes long-term thinking.”

Adrian Mota, the CIHR’s associate vice-president, research programs – operations, says that the balance between basic, investigator-led research and more directed, applied grants is always a topic of intense discussion, but in this case, it was clear that a more directed approach was the right one. “There’s no question of the value of investing in open research, but as the pandemic evolved, it made more sense to invest in strategic competitions,” he says.

Within those directed competitions, however, the agency accepted applications for pretty much any project related to COVID-19, but asked reviewers to concentrate on the ones that might have the best chance of providing immediate aid for the pandemic response. “You don’t always know where the best results will come from, so it makes sense to cast the net wide,” says Mr. Mota.

However, that made the job of peer review difficult for those evaluating the applications, who had to pass over many high-quality proposals that might take longer to come to fruition. Ironically, many researchers would have preferred a bit more top-down direction in the competitions. “Reviewers didn’t have full clarity on what was wanted,” says Shirin Kalyan, an immunologist at the University of British Columbia, who helped review COVID-19 grant applications. “It would have been helpful if CIHR had laid out a timeline for the specific kinds of applications they wanted.”

Dr. Grandvaux says in retrospect, the first competitions should have focused more on specific topics like developing an animal model for transmission, the basic biology of the virus, and surveillance capacity and variant sequencing. “Sequencing came very late, it could have been prioritized in the early funding,” she says.

As the emergency phase of the pandemic eases, researchers hope that the experience of the past year has helped to demonstrate the value of basic research. Armed with new examples of how long-term bets in science can pay off, such as the lipid nanoparticle research at UBC that contributed to the development of the mRNA vaccines, science advocates will push for greater investment not just in pandemic-specific research, but the basic science that underpins it.

“The pandemic highlights the need to invest in Canadian science,” says Dr. Kalyan. “A lot of money went into COVID-19, now people want to get back to what they do for a living.”

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