CIHR Internal Assessment - Report for the 2011 International Review

Table of Contents

List of Figures

List of Tables

This report provides key information for the International Review Panel (IRP) and Expert Review Team, including an orientation to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the environment in which it operates, highlights on progress made under the guidance of the first strategic plan, details about CIHR’s response to the observations made by the first IRP, an explanation of the directions CIHR is taking in its second strategic plan, and an outline of the scientific and operational opportunities and challenges faced by CIHR. This report is designed to help reviewers frame their questions and address the goals of the Review.

Introduction, History, Vision and Mandate

CIHR was created 10 years ago to replace the Medical Research Council of Canada (MRC). In contrast to MRC, which supported only biomedical and clinical research, CIHR was mandated with supporting the whole spectrum of health research, including health services and public health research, which were formerly under the purview of the National Health and Research Development Program.1

In addition to this broadened mandate, CIHR was to "excel, according to internationally accepted standards of scientific excellence, in the creation of new knowledge," and also to ensure translation of this knowledge "into improved health for Canadians, more effective health services and products and a strengthened Canadian health care system."2 The second part of this mandate, which deals with knowledge translation (KT), was novel for a Canadian research agency and unknown territory for most researchers. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research Act (CIHR Act) reflects the KT component of CIHR’s mandate with its commitments to "work in collaboration with the provinces to advance health research and to promote the dissemination and application of new research knowledge to improve health and health services," and "promote the dissemination of knowledge and the application of health research to improve the health of Canadians."2

Furthermore, CIHR’s operating model was fundamentally different from that of its predecessor and other federal research granting councils as it comprised 13 "virtual" thematic institutes. In contrast to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, CIHR’s Institutes are neither legislated entities, nor bricks-and-mortar organizations with intramural research programs. Nonetheless, they form the constitutive core of CIHR: "Through these Institutes, researchers will contribute their combined expertise in multidisciplinary approaches to understand the biological, social, economic, psychological and environmental determinants of health."3

One of the first intents in creating CIHR was to ensure balanced support of the four themes4 of health research, defined in the CIHR Act as:

  1. Biomedical research (theme 1)
  2. Clinical research (theme 2)
  3. Research respecting health systems and health services (theme 3)
  4. The health of populations, societal and cultural dimensions of health and environmental influences on health (theme 4)

CIHR was also conceived to achieve equilibrium between "open" (or investigator-initiated) funding versus "strategic" (or targeted) funding. The consensus of CIHR’s Governing Council was to move gradually to 30% strategic and 70% open, and indeed the strategic funding proportion increased from 11% in 2000–2001 to 33% in 2009–2010.

The creation of CIHR in 2000, in addition to other new federal funding agencies created around that time (notably the Canada Foundation for Innovation and Genome Canada), has profoundly transformed the health research scene in Canada. The number and size of research grants, as well as the number of researchers and research trainees, have markedly increased. Collaboration has become the norm and interdisciplinary approaches are thriving. Through the institutes, partnerships with either public or private sectors have proliferated, increasing not only the resources that can be invested in common priorities, but also the interest in and uptake of the research results. The immediate outcome has been a significant growth of Canadian publications in all major fields of health research.

The concepts and practice of KT have taken hold among the research community. Through innovative KT approaches, health-policy makers have gained appreciation of the value of health research for informed decision making. CIHR is indeed fully integrated into the Government of Canada’s Health Portfolio and is being regularly asked to provide advice to the Minister of Health on issues of science and technology. These changes have been significant, but the transformation is not complete. A lot remains to be done, in particular to ensure that research impacts on the quality and effectiveness of health care in Canada. Expectations have been raised. The challenge ahead is for CIHR to meet these expectations and maintain momentum in an economic climate very different from the one that prevailed when the organization was created.

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