A Decade of Mishandling Science in Canada

Jim Woodgett

The most insidious changes in society do not announce their arrival, they sneak up slowly and stealthily on the unsuspecting. There may be a sense there’s something not right, a series of tiny or seemingly irrelevant policy changes, adjustments to adjudication processes, dismantling of long-standing procedures, and protests at small, marginal but retrograde developments. But the concerns are easily brushed away, like individual fallen leaves on a lawn in early October. Then the wind blows and it’s too late. The naysayers who were brusquely dismissed previously say “I told you so”. The protagonists of change shrug and say “You didn’t warn us! It was inevitable, learn to adapt!”

The slow deterioration of the status of the scientific community in Canada isn’t unique: there are funding and political pressures in many other countries that have frozen budgets and eroded rates of progress. Indeed, a quick glance at the amount of federal government dollars invested in research and you’d be forgiven for asking where’s the problem? Sure, it’s been relatively flat spending for the tricouncils (CIHR/SSHRC/NSERC) but there have been new funding announcements such as Canada Foundation for Innovation (infrastructure), for Brain Canada and for a shiney new $1.5 billion program called Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF). There has been clear evidence of a shift from more basic/discovery research to applied research and commercialization. One might even argue that Canada perhaps had the previous balance wrong. While I don’t subscribe to that idea, it is a matter of opinion. But let me illustrate what I think as a ticking time bomb that won’t go off for a number of years, via two examples.

A closer look at Canadian science funding programs yields some important changes in the nature of how science is supported. The federal government has peppered its prime delivery instruments, the tricouncils, with a few extra dollars (between zero and ~3% of their budget) over the past decade but this has been largely ear-marked for strategic programs such as the CIHR Strategy for Patient Oriented Research (SPOR) or industry partnerships. The net effect is that funding available for openly competitive ideas has decreased markedly. This budgetary flat-lining and shift to strategic programs has contributed to a relentless drop in success rates for open grant competitions. Realising early on that this would end badly, CIHR developed a series of bold reforms which shortened and simplified applications, brought in highly structured reviewing and, most dramatically, abolished face-to-face peer review panels and replaced them with on-line, virtual reviews. The reaction of the research community has been mixed at best, but despite widespread concern, the reforms were introduced to the backdrop of a burning platform of success rates that were circling the drain.

Unfortunately, results from the first of the new reform-based competitions (the first “Foundation Scheme”) in the Summer of this year revealed massive problems. The overall success rate was historically low (10.9%) but for investigators within their first 5 years of independence the rate was abysmal, just 4% — and may have been lower but for an imposed minimum quota (a previous analysis of the reforms and this competition can be found here: http://nghoussoub.com/2015/07/22/reformatting-the-canadian-institutes-of-health-research-a-living-autopsy/).

But these disappointing statistics hide a larger problem, the effects of which will likely not be realised for several years. The structured review adopted by CIHR and other councils imposed a prescribed format on grant applications. This goes well beyond allowable fonts, pages and margin widths: applications are divided into discrete sections such as Concept, Approach and Expertise. These headings may appear innocuous except each is strictly character-limited and associated with a specific proportion of the overall grant score. If your thinking does not conform to this structure, tough luck. Moreover, reviewers are instructed to assess particular aspects within each section. Together, the rigid application format and restricted assessment mean that failure to conform to a particular style of presentation of ideas will inevitably doom the proposal. Applicants will, of course, attempt to follow the required path. Conformists will survive. But what of those whose ideas and thinking are incompatible with this new scientific order? The same application structure applies universally to all forms of health research, from basic to clinical to systems and population health. It’s one size fits all.

The CFREF program is an entirely different beast. Only universities are eligible to apply (colleges may apply for a subset of dollars) and each can only submit one proposal per competition (of which there are 3, one of has been completed to date). These are for big dollars — a successful University of Toronto proposal “Medicine by Design” landed $114 million over 7 years — and are meant to support big teams that address areas of existing excellence that can further extend Canada’s competitive position within the topic of interest. Go big or go home. There is an international trend towards bigger science but this phenomenon is relatively new to health research — unlike astronomy and high energy physics where access to extremely expensive and complex infrastructure has dictated consolidation in many fields. Witness the European Framework programs, the NIH BRAIN Initiative, Stand Up to Cancer Dream Teams and the recently announced Cancer Research UK Challenges. These initiatives have an important place in the grand scheme as a means to support science and politicians and funders have proven receptive to big ideas (with their associated big promises). Cure Alzheimers by 2025! Cure cancer in our lifetime! But we also need to remember that, as large dollar instruments, successful teams tend to be comprised of well established, well known (and well funded) scientists, leaving younger scientists significantly under-represented. As more of the funding pie is diverted and consolidated into such big bets, these vulnerable investigators are likely to be left to gasp for support.

The combination of the structured and virtual review process introduced by CIHR and mega science schemes like CFREF will, inevitably, change the flavour of research in Canada. The question is whether it will do so for the better. The programs were introduced with specific agendas including increased efficiency and reduction of costs to evaluate. My fear is that in treating research as though it is some sort of predictable outcomes activity that can be simply productionized into higher and more valuable yields, that the essential essences of creativity and curiosity will be quashed. Much like the futility of a publisher telling a new writer to concentrate only on writing a best seller, trying to de-risk science will strip it of originality, true progress and ultimate impact. The outliers in science, the people who defy convention, see the world differently from most of us and it is they who change our thinking. These people will wither in a system that rewards obedience to instruction. Moreover, our younger scientists will be more likely to drop out as their funding becomes more precarious at the expense of more established (and often less innovative) researchers who will mop up the large scale grants. There are already worrying signs that we are close to losing a generation of young scientists, who, ironically, developed their skills in a supremely competitive environment and are thus exceptionally talented .

Science in general, and discovery research in particular, depend on black swans. But we’ve little if any ability to predetermine who will become one of these rarities. Indeed, the best (only?) way to ensure we develop them is to simply increase the number of individual, independent minds that each have the potential to sprout their genius — the antithesis of the mega team/established scientist approach. Traditionally we have retrospectively valued and recognized outstanding scientists through prizes and awards. But at the time of their discoveries most of their close colleagues were unsure of the significance of their work. In science, we are proven losers at picking winners. With the introduction of these new programs and adjudication processes, we may be unintentionally culling the vry people who are essential to our future. And we won’t know the result of this uncontrolled experiment until it is far too late.

Jim Woodgett

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Toronto researcher working on diabetes, stem cells, cancer & neuroscience. 140 chars are my own pithy but open access thought-lets.

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