CIHR Number Crunching or All I Want for Christmas is My Two Project Grants

In a year or so, we’ll look back and recognize 2015 was a watershed year for most Canadian health researchers. Despite several years of preparation, many researchers haven’t grasped the impact of the multiple whammies of introduction of a completely new set of funding schemes, stuctured applications and reviews, a complete “re-imagining” of peer review and a major reversal of programs (such as the ending of the MD-PhD program, Cochrane Canada support and the last New Investigator Salary awards). The impact of the inaugural Foundation scheme and the suspension of two “tocks” of the regular “tick-tock” of twice yearly open competitions (OOGPs) has already exacted a price, sensitizing already precarious research programs and triggering a number of stories in the Canadian and international press (1–14). But the bigger impacts will become apparent next July as the reinvention of CIHR “as we know it” is essentially completed with the release of the 1st Project scheme results along with the 2nd Foundation scheme. Stephen Harper is often misquoted as saying “you won’t recognize Canada when I’m through with it” (15) but this is most certainly applicable to CIHR under the Presidency of Dr. Alain Beaudet.

The seeds have already been sown for the mid-July, 2016 harvest (announcement date for results for the next competitions) as judged by the reduced number of Foundation scheme applicants invited to Stage 2 (265 this round vs 467 in the first competition— a 44% drop). This is a more severe cull at Stage 1 than anticipated given the number of applicants this year versus last was 910 vs 1366 (33% drop)(16, 17). The explanation may relate to sobering predictions of success rates in the Spring and Fall Project schemes (data from Michael Hendricks).

Data by Michael Hendricks:

Let’s attempt to predict some funding scenarios as this may influence whether and when applications should be best submitted. Disclaimer: these calculations make numerous assumptions and CIHR has some latitude in how it splits available funds between its competitions. In 2016, CIHR has ~$520 million to disburse through open operating competitions. While ~80% of this is previously committed to prior competitions, since research funding is rolled forward, it is reasonable to model it based on a moving 5 year window. Newly available funding will be split between the Foundation scheme and the Project scheme. The Foundation scheme pre-allocates and rolls up all CIHR grants an applicant may have and extends this funding for up to 7 years. This clearly imposes restrictions on flexibility for other programs as the Foundation scheme tends to agglutinate big blobs of “lumpy” funding. The 1st F-scheme tied up ~$409 million over 5–7 years (16) but it appears the second competition will be significantly smaller with perhaps ~100 grants (rather than 150). Moreover, a greater fraction of Early Career Investigators will be funded this round due to deliberate picket fencing of this cohort in the review process. Since ECI awards are limited to 5 years rather than 7 and are funded at ~1/3rd the amount of a more senior investigator, the budget required is commensurately less. I estimate that at ~100 F-scheme awards, the total commitment will be ~$260 million vs $409 million in the prior competition.

Together, this will allow greater allotment for the Project scheme, especially the Spring 2016 competition. Why is this important? Allow me to count the ways….

  1. This is the first Project competition. Anyone (aside from 150 inaugural Foundation scheme awardees) can apply, including those 265 allowed through to Stage 2 of the 2nd Foundation scheme.
  2. Any number of applications can be submitted per applicant.
  3. The format of the application forms has been shrunken at least in half compared to previous applications (the entire length is equivalent to 188 tweets) and only two pages of preliminary data may be appended.
  4. As the Spring 2016 competition is the inaugural Project scheme, the results have to look reasonable (this might partially explain the 1st Foundation scheme being larger).

In other words, the barriers to application are substantially reduced and, coupled with the uncertainty of a new format and pent up demand due to cancellation of the Fall 2015 competition, there is bound to be an increase in application pressure. CIHR anticipates 3000 applications (the average was 2400/competition prior to the reforms). The actual number may well be higher. If, as appears to be the case, CIHR is squirrelling some funds away from the Foundation scheme, we might anticipate ~$320 million for 2016 Project competitions. If this has to be spread between two Project competitions, the outlook is dire.

However, the results of the Fall competition will not be announced till February 2017 and might therefore be rolled into the 2017 financial year (I reached out to a contact at CIHR about this but haven’t heard back). If funds for the Fall 2016 competition are delayed until April 1, 2017, CIHR may be able to boost the amount allocated to the Spring 2016 competition. So, what might $320 million in a single Project scheme competition buy?

If there are 3000 applications, there would be enough for 480 grants at $131,000 (assumes average of 5 yr/grant based on last tOOGP competition) equating a success rate of 16%.

If there are 4000 applications, then 480 grants at $131,000 x 5 yrs would equate to a success rate of 12% (as an aside, 4K applications would require 2K reviewers, none of whom can be applicants…).

Again, this is the roses picture, divide these amounts in half if the funds available must support two Project competitions. Indeed, this isn’t worth contemplating without an injection in the February 2016 Federal budget to stave off disaster.

CIHR has not gone into details of the specific funds available for the next competitions (aside from the anticipated total of ~$520 million). That strategy is understandable. If applicants thought the Spring 2016 competition was “spring-loaded”, application pressure would increase. Moreover, if this is how the funding does become distributed, then the problem is just moved to FY2017 and the Fall 2016 and Spring 2017 Project schemes would have to split the funds available for the Spring 2016 competition. As an aside, the Spring Project scheme registration deadline is January 18th, 2016.

Indeed, there is no getting around the financial jam that CIHR (and more importantly, its researcher community) faces. As the President of CIHR notes in the 2014/15 annual report regarding the implementation of the reforms (18), “it was a bit like changing the motor of a plane while in flight!”. The question is: WHO WOULD DO THAT???

So what should you do? Firstly, write your MPs, the Minister of Science (Rt. Hon. Kirsty Duncan) and Minister of Health (Rt. Hon. Jane Philpott) and describe your own experiences and impacts of the reforms. CIHR clearly needs additional funding but it should be earmarked to open competitions (specifically the Project scheme). Secondly, engage with your university and/or hospital research leadership. They know about the challenges, but it may not be top of their minds. Many universities, for example, despite warnings, wrote-off the reforms as being a zero-sum game and therefore unlikely to impact their researchers. Lastly, be constructive. There is awareness in Ottawa of “disquiet” but the research community is not disfunctional — it is foreshadowing a tremendous loss of research potential that will take a decade to repair, unless positive action is taken quickly.

  1. An incomplete sample of stories on the impact of CIHR reforms:
  2. Webster, P.C. CIHR cutting MD/PhD training program CMAJ September 8, 2015 187:E381-E382
  3. Webster, P.C. Peer review conflicts of interest surface at CIHR CMAJ March 17, 2015 187:313
  4. Webster, P.C. CIHR modifies virtual peer review amidst complaints CMAJ March 17, 2015 187:E151-E152
  5. Webster, P.C. CIHR reforms contradict consultant reports CMAJ February 3, 2015 187:E67
  6. Webset, P.C. A new paradigm for health research funding. CMAJ January 7, 2014 186: 1
  7. Webster, P.C. CIHR’s commitment to basic science questioned CMAJ April 21, 2015 187:484
  8. Collier, R. Cochrane Canada to lose primary funding CMAJ July 14, 2015 187:E304
  9. Webster P.C. CIHR “dismantling” Aboriginal health research CMAJ July 14, 2015 187:E313-E314
  16. 1st F-scheme overall results
  17. 2nd F-scheme Stage 1 results
  18. Presidents message: CIHR annual report 2014/15
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