CIHR Fiasco… What Now?

By Diana Canals, PhD Student in McNagny Lab

You probably have heard during the past few months the general discontent of Canadian scientists with the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), the agency responsible for distributing funding for research. So, what is this about? Last year, CIHR imposed a series of radical reforms to the way they hand out research money, which were not well accepted by the research community. Indeed, they even created their own hashtag (#Pscream) to virtually protest and express their frustration as they watched the new changes threatening the system they depend on for funding their research.

The most condemned of the reforms was the ablation of the face-to-face peer review. Traditionally reviewers were grouped into specialized committees and flown to Ottawa where they spent days in meetings reading and discussing applications and assigning them scores to determine which projects would get funded. This is a process used by most of the world’s scientific funding agencies.

Dr. Alain Beaudet, President of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) announced his retirement from the CIHR and the public service commencing at the end of March 2017.

In order to reduce costs, safeguard from potential reviewer bias and guarantee a larger number of reviewers per grant, Dr. Beaudet, the current CIHR president, eliminated the face-to-face peer review and replaced it with an anonymous online system. Currently, all applications go to a central pool where, using a complex algorithm, they each get assigned to four reviewers who are overseen by “virtual” chairs.

However, this “matching solution” was in its experimental test phase for the pilot. As a result, many felt it failed to match reviewer expertise with researcher grants in some areas, making it a struggle to find enough reviewers to read all the applications.  Moreover, many felt that the lack of face-to-face review led to more cursory, and less in-depth, input from the virtual reviewers, which further fueled concerns.

To make matters worse, two operating grant competitions were cancelled as part of the reform process. This created an unusually large number of applications to the new system. As a result, the untested system was overwhelmed with more than 3,800 projects, a new historical record for submitted applications, and success rates plummeted.

Following this misstep, many scientists across Canada joined forces and worked together to identify the principal concerns from the scientific community about the new reforms and to develop solutions to address them. The result? CIHR hosted a “Working Meeting” on July 13th together with members of the health research community to address the concerns regarding the peer review process. As a follow up, a Peer Review Working Group was established under the leadership of Dr. Paul Kubes to develop a list of recommendations to strengthen peer review for the Project Grant competition.

As a result, CIHR recently announced the adoption and implementation of some of these recommendations for the 2017 spring Project Grant competition: virtual chairs will now be paired with scientific officers to ensure that high quality reviewers are assigned to all applications. In addition, there will be two stages of revision: stage 1 or triage, a virtual review in which each application will receive 4-5 reviewers; and Stage 2, in which highly ranked applications (or applications with large scoring discrepancies) will be reviewed in a face-to-face discussion by three panel members.

Currently, the scientific community awaits expectantly to see if these changes will improve the funding review process for the recently announced 2017 Spring Project Grant competition, which will happen in June 2017.