Letter to the new CIHR president

Dear Dr. McInnes,

I know you must be swamped, but here it goes anyway. Having been involved with consultations related to CIHR’s reform programs, I wanted to take the opportunity to provide some unsolicited input on the current competitions.

1. The allocation between Foundation and Project is the most critical issue. Even if we could fix Project peer review, the 45% allocation to Foundation prevents Project from functioning. Based on application pressure and the current funding split, we are looking at 20% or higher success rates in Foundation and <10% success rates in Project. This is an absurd inversion of reason. Foundation had some good ideas behind it, but in the absence of new funding, it is crippling the open programs and creating a scientific caste system. In contrast, NIH allocates less than 10% of its funding to “elite” investigator-oriented support (TR01, Pioneer, MIRA, etc). Like the R01, Project grants are the lifeblood of health research. We’re hemorrhaging.

While a true consolidation mechanism could achieve Foundation’s stated goals (perhaps not the unstated ones), in practice most Foundation awardees are getting substantially increased support: career-high annual budgets locked in for 7 years. The bizarre baseline methodology (rather than just consolidating current grants) and the approval of above-baseline requests created a mess. This is a major redistribution and concentration of grant support that will undermine CIHR’s ability to meet its mandate. Again, contrast this with NIH’s MIRA program, where stability and consolidation of multiple grants is traded off with a 10–15% budget cut.

Recommendations:

  • The allocation for this round should be shifted to maximize Project success rates, only awarding Foundation grants to truly exceptional cases, perhaps limiting to those with 3 or more current operating grants. Strictly enforce budget baselines. Foundation should not be more than 10% of open program spending.
  • Suspend further Foundation competitions unless/until there is a major increase in CIHR’s open program budget.

2. Peer review in the current Project Scheme. We should return to face to face, discipline-oriented panels and a review process managed by PhD-level chairs, SOs, and program officers. I am sure there are online or hybrid systems that could work, but I am equally sure that CIHR cannot deliver them without years of work and true piloting in consultation with the community.

The hybrid system we are using now has failed. (Though it was never really given a chance: it might have worked if there had been reviewer assignment by Chairs/SOs and stable clusters across Stage 1 and 2.) Stage 2, as I’m sure you’re now aware, cannot function as designed. It will further undermine trust in CIHR and showcase more operational failures. I did an informal poll on Twitter (username @roderickmcinnes is available!), to which about 60 people replied:

35% said CIHR should just give bridge grants to all S2 apps
25% said successful grants should just be picked at random from S2 apps
19% said just fund according to Stage 1 consolidated rankings
21% said let S2 go ahead as planned

Obviously this is not real polling data, but I think it captures the sentiment of much of the community and aligns with offline conversations I’ve had. The first three options all presume we’re better off not doing Stage 2 at all. I know that any changes now are both procedurally and politically difficult, but I think everything should be on the table.

Personally, I lean toward the “bridge all S2 apps” option, not only because it is selfish (I have one grant at S2 and zero belief it has a chance at funding), but because the truth is CIHR cannot deliver adequate peer review right now. It is wrong to use this process to distribute over $300M in funding each year. We’re 3 years into the Reforms, and they have been an unmitigated disaster for the community. The primary cause is Foundation, so we will be living with the constraints created by the botched implementation of these programs for at least 7 years. Productive labs are laying off staff or closing. New labs can’t get funded (including over half of Tier 2 CRCs).

One-year grants aren’t good funding policy and normally I oppose their use: they kick the can down the road and don’t relieve application pressure. However, at this point I feel we just need to stop the bleeding. If there is a chance of a federal budget increase next year for CIHR, bridging a large number of PIs at least keeps a lot of good labs open — we can’t pretend that Project is funding meritocratically or in alignment with CIHR’s mandate. The impact of a “bridge surge” as emergency funding could be maximized by limiting it to PIs without ongoing operating support (e.g. current grants ending in 2018 or not currently holding an operating grant), but that is not likely to be popular.

Thanks for listening, and good luck!

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