Alain Beaudet says that funding reforms at Canada's biomedical research agency are designed to increase collaboration. Credit: DFATD

The biggest overhaul in the 15-year history of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) was meant to rescue biomedical researchers from the endless grant applications and Byzantine peer-review processes that had become a feature of the cash-strapped agency. “The research community was complaining bitterly,” says Alain Beaudet, president of the CIHR in Ottawa. “They begged me to make changes.”

But now that reality is kicking in, many researchers worry that the changes — which modify how grants are awarded, restructure advisory boards and reallocate the money funnelled through the 13 virtual institutes that comprise the CIHR — will marginalize some fields and hurt early-career researchers.

Beaudet says that the plans have been in place for some time, but many researchers — particularly those on the institutes’ scientific advisory boards — complain that the CIHR has failed to communicate the changes adequately, and that the number of simultaneous reforms is overwhelming.

“We’re a little bit stunned,” says Gillian Einstein, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Toronto and chair of the board that advises the CIHR’s Institute of Gender Health. “I’m not sure the groundwork was laid so we’d understand what was happening.”

Each institute has its own advisory board with up to 12 members, and receives a dedicated allotment of about Can$8.5 million (US$6.7 million) from the CIHR’s Can$1‑billion annual research budget. In the 2016 budget, these outlays will be cut in half, with the savings going into a common fund. To access this new funding source, institutes will have to work together to design cross-disciplinary initiatives that have extra support from a funding partner such as a charity, institution or company. Beaudet says that the CIHR will be responsible for finding many of these partners.

The CIHR also plans to eliminate most of the scientific advisory boards, leaving only three or four panels, which will advise several institutes each. An internal panel is still evaluating the plan, which would not take effect before April 2016. Nearly all of the advisory boards are protesting the changes. “If you’re doing well and have some vision, and someone took half your toolset away, I’d say the rug was pulled out,” says Anthony Jevnikar, a nephrologist at Western University in London, Ontario, who chairs the advisory board for the Institute of Infection and Immunity.

Bar to entry

Feathers are also being ruffled by changes to the CIHR’s system for awarding grants to proposals submitted by researchers. In July, the agency plans to hand out the first set of awards under a pilot system that divides about half of its research budget between two mechanisms. One of these, the Foundation Scheme, gives seven years of guaranteed funding to established researchers and five years to early-career investigators. Grant recipients can use the money for any project, but are barred from receiving other CIHR funding. The second mechanism, the Project Scheme, awards smaller grants for specified work over a shorter period.

But researchers who have been reviewing the first set of applications under the new system see potential problems, particularly for early-career researchers, who often have difficulty showing enough preliminary data to justify specific projects or enough of a track record to win an open-ended grant. New investigators submitted about 40% of the 1,366 grant applications for the Foundation Scheme’s pilot round, but they were involved with less than 20% of the 467 applications that made it through the first phase of peer review. “Young researchers are left out in the cold,” says Jim Woodgett, a molecular biologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.

Some institutes also feel imperilled by the changes. Researchers supported by the Institute of Aboriginal Peoples’ Health (IAPH) say that they have few funding options outside the CIHR, and would not find it easy to interest external partners in providing support so that they could receive money through the cross-disciplinary common fund. Their field is relatively new and they are under-represented among public-health researchers, so they feel disadvantaged if they have to compete against other institutes for money and for spots on an advisory board that will also oversee other institutes. “We’re losing our distinctive voice,” says Frederic Wien, a sociologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax who studies aboriginal health.

Such concerns are exactly why the reforms are taking place, says Beaudet: “There were not enough collaborations between institutes.” For instance, he says, the other 12 institutes assumed that they did not need to worry about aboriginal peoples’ health, because the IAPH would cover all relevant research. The other institutes’ inattention to indigenous peoples’ health is a huge problem, Beaudet adds.

Wien says that the CIHR has not been responsive to complaints over the past several years. He and others are also concerned that the agency might eliminate some institutes altogether. The 13 divisions have existed since the CIHR was founded, but Beaudet says that, by law, external and internal panels must review the institutes every five years; it has always been possible that some could be eliminated.