Letter to the U15 – Group of Canadian Research Universities

February 16, 2016

Dear Colleagues,

Thank you for your letter of January 29, 2016, in which you reiterate your support for the reforms that the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) has undertaken to strengthen the Canadian Health Research enterprise, but also share the concerns of certain members of the heath research community with regards to the implementation of these reforms.

First, allow me to acknowledge the importance that CIHR attributes to the U15’s engagement with, and support to, CIHR. This is the reason why you (or in many cases your predecessors) were the first consulted about the need for, and the design of, these reforms. Without exception, U15 Presidents agreed on the importance of improving the structure and adjudication of CIHR’s open programs and encouraged us to proceed with the changes that are currently being implemented.

Unfortunately, as you correctly point out, the roll out of these reforms, which was planned over 4 years ago, is occurring while CIHR is facing serious underfunding issues due to a concurrent stagnation of its A-base budget and increase in application pressure. The impact of this underfunding has been erroneously interpreted by some as resulting from the reforms, which in turn has increased the angst amongst stakeholders.

It is important for me to reiterate, as I did when I first engaged the U15, that the program changes being implemented are essential for CIHR to meet its parliamentary mandate of supporting excellence in all health research pillars and in both discovery and applied settings. This being said, I also believe that is critical for CIHR to keep the dialogue wide open with the community and to correct the course where needed, based on fact rather than anecdotes.

The actions you recommend we take are very much in line with this course of action. Specifically:

  1. Place a temporary moratorium on further changes to research funding programs;

    I can reassure you that CIHR has no intention of implementing any additional changes to our funding programs in the immediate future. You should know that the directions taken to date with program modifications have the ultimate objective of maximizing our capacity to support excellence and to foster creative thinking. They entail an increase of the funding envelope for open programs and maintaining the number of Canadian health researchers funded.

  2. Convene a national health research summit to discuss the changes to date to research funding programs, the results of the pilots, and the actions that have been taken and will be taken to address the concerns of the research community;

    I have been informed by HealthCareCAN that there is an interest in working with the U15 and others to undertake a major Life Sciences summit in the fall. CIHR would be pleased to participate in such an event as appropriate. As I said, CIHR remains steadfastly committed to communicating the results of the pilots and exchanging with the various health research communities on mechanisms to improve the grant adjudication process.

  3. Commission an independent, third party international review of the changes to research funding programs and peer review mechanisms;

    CIHR’s Act stipulates that the organization is to be evaluated by an independent third party every 5 years. In fact, the current reforms were, as you will recall, developed as part of CIHR’s Governing Council’s response to the recommendations of CIHR’s second International Review Panel chaired by Elias Zerhouni, and specifically to the following: “CIHR should consider awarding larger grants with longer terms for the leading investigators nationally. It should also consolidate grants committees to reduce their number and give them each a broader remit of scientific review, thereby limiting the load and ensuring full attention to new highly meritorious proposals.

    Which is, of course, exactly what we did. CIHR’s Governing Council has already determined that the next International Review should focus on a thorough assessment of the impact of CIHR’s modifications to its program design and delivery. We are indeed committed to ensuring that the reforms implemented are delivering the intended outcomes.

  4. Ensure that every effort is made to avoid loss of continuity of funding for research programs as a result of changes to the program structures;

    CIHR fully agrees with this statement and is taking every possible step to help ensure that there is no loss of continuity of funding as a result of these changes. However, as you recognize, additional sources of funding will be needed to fully address this objective.

In closing, I do hope that this correspondence has provided you with the necessary reassurance that CIHR is making every effort to respond to the concerns of the research community. I would welcome an opportunity for a face to face meeting with all of you to pursue these discussion in order to strengthen our respective mutual support for the benefit of health research in Canada.

Again, thank you for your continued engagement in these important undertakings.


Alain Beaudet, MD, PhD

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