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The Black Hole

More time doing research, less time applying for money – sounds great, right?

BY DAVID KENT | APR 24 2012

As I’ve mentioned on here before – if you are involved in health research in Canada, you should read the CIHR’s proposed changes to its granting system.  This is a chance to assess and give your opinion before things are set in stone.  I can appreciate that it is long and somewhat tedious in sections, but there are critical changes being made that will have long reaching effects on the health research community.

I’ve already outlined in detail the distinction between the programmatic and project grants with the main distinction being:

Programmatic = long term, larger grants for individual groups, based on previous track record

Project = shorter term, smaller grants focused on the project

Overall, I think the CIHR’s intentions in this proposal are good, but some aspects lack clarity and could be the source of much future consternation.  In particular, I am concerned about the rollout process, the funding of mid-career researchers, and the prohibiting of holding multiple grants.

First off, let me applaud the CIHR for making some bold moves on the grant evaluation process – I hope they adopt them all.  Doing the bulk of the work remotely and incorporating Internet-based discussions is clearly a positive step forward for sparing precious time and energy.  Triaging applications at early stages will have two positive outcomes – letting unsuccessful applicants move on to alternate sources more quickly and saving their time by not making them prepare full applications.  Exactly what criteria will help a grant avoid the chopping block was not made clear, and this will likely be met with some growing pains in the first few competitions – overall though, great move.  The second, and arguably more important, step is to try and set some sort of standard in the peer review process rather than a reviewer’s gut feeling about a proposal.  The proposed College of Reviewers sounds great, though I am a little unsure about how formalized this process will be.  Hopefully nothing too onerous, but either way, the CIHR will need to be prepared for many disgruntled experienced reviewers who “don’t need training”.

Secondly, I think the idea to have the project stream evaluate grants based on project quality alone in the first stage is a great idea.  I hope they really mean that it will be exclusively on the project quality and all researcher information will be blinded – the blinder the better  This is exactly the type of mechanism that would see poor proposals from groups with established track records getting tossed in the bin, and it couldn’t be done sooner.  Clearly those that make it through will still need a good track record and CV to acquire the funding, but either way this is a great step forward to ensuring that good science gets pursued.

However, all is not clear in the CIHR proposal and I feel some whitewashing has been done in other areas described below:

No Project For You
Something that must have been flagged in feedback sessions across the country is the proposal to prevent program grant holders from obtaining project grants.  In principle, I can see the point (wanting to share the wealth around to more researchers) and as a junior researcher it’s hard to complain as this might well be the money I shoot for.  I have several worries though.  First, an average program grant of $300,000/yr does not go as far as one might think, especially if it’s spread across 2 or 3 co-investigators.  Salaries alone could quickly consume the entire grant with no other source of CIHR monies.  Secondly, this could very easily stymie collaborative research efforts.  Just imagine you want to work with another lab group that has just made a technological breakthrough in your field and they hold a program grant – no project for you.

Cheaping out?
CIHR makes bold statements about how program funding will let investigators go for multiple years without having to worry about funding, comparing themselves to Howard Hughes and the Wellcome Trust.  I wasn’t able to find the average HHMI, but I know that the Wellcome Trust packages are substantially higher with the average programme grant being nearly ~$700,000/yr and even senior fellowships to new group leaders being valued at over $500,000/yr.

If the CIHR is serious about longterm support of good groups in an effort to avoid writing additional grants, they are going to have to award enough money to actually get things done.  Otherwise, these groups will still have to write additional proposals to get the remaining work funded.

Focus on Institutional Support 
I’m not sure exactly what is going to happen here, but I worry about the weight put on institutional support – is this a CIHR bullying tactic to free up researchers time to do research or is it simply a question of can the work be done at the institution where it is being proposed?  I’m sure details will follow, but I worry that it might be the former and not the latter that would continue the trend of the last number of years away from rewarding researchers who teach well and discourage such contributions.

Integrated Knowledge Translation
I am no stranger to appreciating the value of knowledge translation, but in all of my experiences so far (and I stand to be corrected), when this type of activity is forced, it rarely works out well.  Integrating these elements will feel like a chore to some researchers and can result in a colossal waste of time.  I’m all for CIHR pushing inter-disciplinary and translational aspects of projects, but if the proposed changes want to require this type of activity in order to be funded I suspect we’re in for a substantial backlash.

The best examples of successful knowledge translation I have seen are when the motivation is equally present on both sides and the work starts occurring well before any grant gets written as a consequence of this motivation.  The example that frightens me is the Genome Canada mandate that was meant to include science outreach in all of its program grants.  Basically, many research groups had no idea what to do – but they knew they had to do something – and many efforts were duplicated or misled into delivering sub-par science outreach programming.  How many research groups will look at the CIHR’s new proposal and invite a medical doctor in their field who may or may not be keen on the research to be a part of a grant idea they simply do not care about?  I suspect many… and this scares me.  There must be a better way.

Swimming with the big fish 
It seems to me that CIHR’s proposals will benefit early career researchers and more established senior researchers, but the big gap seems to be when a researcher first enters the mid-career stage.  Will they be competitive for program grants against the juggernauts in their field if track record and individual scientist investments are the name of the game?  I recognize that CIHR repeatedly mentions the need to monitor changes and hope that my worries about the mid tier of researchers are unwarranted.

Overall – I give the CIHR big credit for undertaking some bold initiatives.  But I hope they will, above all else, retain flexibility in their grant evaluations.  There cannot be a single prescribed method for how to do science or how to best translate that science into something that benefits the public.

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Jenn / April 24, 2012 at 22:58

    Thanks for the review Dave! The changes do seem exciting, and I like all the talk about feedback integration, etc… It seems like a highly consultative process at the CIHR, which will hopefully lead to an effective and efficient system.

  2. […] Posted on August 10, 2012 by David Kent For those who have not yet heard, the CIHR plans to make major changes to their funding mechanism for health scientists. Last week, at the height of summer vacation, the CIHR released a “What CIHR heard” […]

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