In 2009, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council declared it would no longer fund any research fitting the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s mandate.
SSHRC had always been the primary source of support for many forms of social and cultural research, irrespective of subject. But in light of budget constraints, addressing overlap between the two federal funding bodies’ mandates was seen as an easy way to ensure maximum value for taxpayer dollars. With CIHR’s operating budget more than double SSHRC’s, long-term support for this type of critical and qualitative health research could be more easily absorbed by CIHR, where it would be less of a financial stressor.
Many academics, however, did not share this view; instead, the announcement caused something of a commotion at Canadian universities when it was released. Although the change affected only a handful of sub-disciplines, it became a larger issue because of the qualitative difference in funding cultures between the two councils.
Grant applications to CIHR met with success by recognizing its strong focus on clinical relevance, commercial impact and interaction with non-academic decision-makers. Those stuck between SSHRC and CIHR faced one of two fates: learn to master the nuances of a new sponsor, framing the design and style of grant submissions to match the target council, or fall between the cracks and see their research programs decimated.
A few key areas of Canadian research were in danger of being abandoned (one group declared it the end of medical anthropology in Canada), with some academics unable or unwilling to quickly change their research programs. Much of the resulting anger was based on certain presumptions about CIHR’s programming and a belief among SSHRC scholars that the council would not adapt to the nuances of social science and humanities research or modes of inquiry.
It’s true that the committee structure of CIHR’s Open Operating Grant Program reinforces a level of cultural inertia that makes it difficult for high-risk or non-traditional research to find success; however, in many ways the ex-SSHRC group’s failure to engage with CIHR due to expectations of low success rates has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Fear of failure led to relatively low submission rates and showed an unwillingness to work with CIHR to address the issues. The engagement by former SSHRC researchers with CIHR has increased slightly since 2009, but has remained very low compared to other disciplines or sectors such as select areas in the natural sciences and engineering that also apply to CIHR.
But now, there is a possibility for large-scale change. Due to its own internal stressors, CIHR recently said it would reform its Open Operating Grant and other open programs. The upcoming Foundation and Project scheme programs represent an immense opportunity for those who are still reeling from SSHRC’s 2009 decision to carve out new success at CIHR.
The reforms address many previously voiced concerns about evaluation. The proposed new review model – virtual, with less focus on a tight group of reviewers – will do much to help abolish various cultural barriers found in the old committee system. Similarly, more reviewers per application will help ensure more consistent results for those applying from underrepresented fields. The move to multi-phase submissions, with early phases less onerous to complete, should make the task of grant writing and reviewing for CIHR programs much easier for all involved.
The primary key to success, however, will be ex-SSHRC researcher engagement with the college of reviewers – a massive undertaking by CIHR to create a new national adjudication body with its own internal structure and volunteer leadership. Once complete, this organization will be responsible for assigning reviewers to applications and ensuring its constituents have the appropriate expertise to competently evaluate funding requests that CIHR receives.
Participation with the college of reviewers will ensure underrepresented groups have a direct hand in informing new review cultures, and that should help remove many traditional barriers that prevented previously well-funded SSHRC-style research from being successful at CIHR.
The opportunity these CIHR reforms offer those affected by the 2009 decision should not be ignored. A reorganization of this size has the potential to ensure all areas of Canadian health research are supported. The only way this will be realized, however, is if affected researchers move past prior negative experiences and begin to engage with CIHR’s new programming.
Mr. Halbersma is a grants officer in Western University’s research development and services office.