Canadian medical research funder scraps new grants in pandemic

After rejection of virtual peer review, federal agency halts new awards, prompting concerns for younger researchers

April 22, 2020

There are concerns that Canada’s up-and-coming medical researchers could be shut out of grant opportunities during the Covid-19 pandemic, after a medical research funder opted against online peer review panels and axed its round of new grants.

In a move unique among the world’s major medical science funding agencies, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research has decided not to hold its semiannual award competition.

The CIHR, which distributes about C$1 billion (£600 million) in taxpayer support each year, blamed the decision on its sense that researchers are too busy with coronavirus-related work to spend time serving on grant-review panels.

“Our focus at the present moment is Canada’s response to the pandemic,’ said CIHR’s spokesman, David Coulombe.

But Paul-Émile Cloutier, the president of HealthCareCAN, which represents academic-affiliated medical centres, said he expects that CIHR's decision reflects its troubled recent history with trying to move more of its grant review processes into virtual formats.

The issue aroused so much opposition in Canada’s medical research community that the 2016 resignation of Alain Beaudet as CIHR president was attributed in part to his move to save costs by using online grant review meetings.

CIHR retreated from Dr Beaudet’s initiative under heavy protest, which included a letter signed by some 1,200 scientists complaining that online meetings left review panel participants distracted and unprepared.

The idea of online reviews “didn’t go very well with the community at the time”, Mr Cloutier recalled. “I think it was an important factor to consider” as CIHR’s current leadership faced the Covid-19 situation, he said.

In the absence of its spring round of grant awards, which would have allocated some C$275 million, the CIHR said that it will allow one-year extensions of all grant awards that were due to expire between June 2020 and March 2021. Those who accept the offer would be ineligible for next scheduled grant competition in the autumn.

In a note to Canadian researchers acknowledging their concern over the cancellation, the CIHR’s current president, Michael Strong, said that he recognised the particular problem now facing early career researchers who had been hoping to get their first funding.

Dr Strong said that CIHR was “exploring specific measures to assist” younger scientists, but offered no specific ideas.

CIHR cancelled the spring awards after consulting with several leading associations including Universities Canada, the U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities and HealthCareCAN, Mr Coulombe said.

CIHR said in its announcement of the cancellation that it did consider trying online peer review sessions, but concluded that method could not be done reliably and would not spare researchers from distractions during the pandemic.

The head of grant awards at the National Institutes of Health, the largest US funder of basic research, expressed surprise at the move. “Except for the projects they’re funding on coronavirus,” Michael Lauer, the NIH’s deputy director for extramural research, said of CIHR, “They’re basically saying, we’re not open for business right now.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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