What you should know about the Spring 2021 Project grant competition
Message from Adrian Mota, Associate Vice-President, Research Programs  (Operations)

Dear colleagues,

Registration for the Spring 2021 Project grant competition begins on February 4. In advance of the upcoming Ask Me Anything sessions this week and applicant webinars scheduled for the coming weeks, I wanted to draw your attention to a few important changes to the competition.

Revised Summary of Progress

In response to requests from peer reviewers, the Spring 2021 Project grant competition will see the return of the Summary of Progress report. While some will recall the Summary of Progress from when it was last used in 2015 (in the Open Operating Grant Program, or OOGP), its purpose has been updated.

The Summary of Progress is mandatory for all Nominated Principal Applicants and can be a maximum of two pages. This document supports your research proposal by allowing you to describe how your application fits into your overarching research program.

When preparing the Summary of Progress pages, please carefully read the instructions as the scope is wider than what many will have experienced previously when applying to the OOGP.  

The Summary of Progress should include:

This step is intended to provide added context that will enable a more robust peer review of each proposal. Of critical importance, it will also provide CIHR with valuable feedback as we move toward removing the across-the-board budget cuts applied to all funded applications starting with the Fall 2021 Project Grant competition with the intent of providing greater discretion to peer review committees on budget allocations.

Applicant Profile CV

As noted previously, CIHR is aware that the Canadian Common CV (CCV) requirements are a barrier to application for some groups. To address this issue, we have developed a new PDF CV template based on the NIH Biosketch that has been refined with input from various stakeholders, including Indigenous community members and researchers. This template, referred to as the Applicant Profile CV, was piloted in several recently delivered and ongoing COVID-19 competitions. In the Spring 2021 Project grant competition, we will continue to evaluate the utility of this approach by implementing the Applicant Profile CV more broadly to include knowledge users, Indigenous applicants and international applicants.  These groups will have the option of either submitting the Applicant Profile CV or the standard Biosketch CCV. Canadian academic applicants (i.e., independent researchers) will still be required to submit the standard CCV.

Removal of weighted scores

We have heard clearly from peer reviewers, peer review committee Chairs and Scientific Officers that the weighted scores should be replaced. In response to this feedback, reviewers will now provide one score that reflects all three evaluation criteria: (1) significance and impact of the research, (2) approaches and methods, and (3) expertise, experience, and resources. This was the model last used in 2015 and allows reviewers flexibility to weight the criteria as appropriate based on their judgement given the context of the application being reviewed.

Sex and Gender Based Analysis (SGBA)

CIHR remains deeply committed to the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion. To continue raising the bar with respect to the integration of SGBA within research, reviewers will be explicitly required to include their assessment of whether SGBA is appropriate for the research being proposed. If so, the overall application score and written evaluation will reflect if SGBA has been suitably addressed in the research proposed. This will supplement the current practice of simply identifying whether SGBA is a strength, a weakness or not applicable to the proposal.

Entry of Foundation grant-holders

This is the first competition where non-ECR Foundation grant-holders will be eligible to apply to the Project grant program. One-hundred and thirty Foundation grant-holders from the 2014 cohort are eligible to apply to the Spring 2021 Project competition. We are taking steps to prepare for former Foundation grant-holders to transition back into the Project grant program, including by presenting transition options to Foundation grantees.

To be clear, CIHR will be investing the funding previously allocated for the Foundation grant program as it becomes available directly into the Project grant program. This means that CIHR will continue to invest approximately $650M in its investigator-initiated research programs. When we sunsetted the Foundation program, the planned amount to be invested per annual competition was $100M. That means that, starting with the Spring 2021 Project Grant competition, approximately $50M will be added to each twice-yearly Project grant competition. Total budgets for Project grant competitions will therefore increase from $275M to approximately $325M. 

Decision process for Spring Project grant competition

We acknowledge the importance of transparency and clarity when it comes to explaining our processes—in this case, the processes by which applications in the Project grant competition will be selected for funding (read a detailed overview of how decisions are made). Although this material will not be new for many of you, we feel it is worth repeating.

The process for funding applications submitted to the Project competition involves several steps:

Indigenous health research

CIHR reserves a portion of the competition budget (4.6 %) for applications reviewed by the Indigenous health research committee. Read more about peer review of Indigenous health research applications.

As announced previously, following consultations with representatives of Indigenous communities, and in the spirit of being more inclusive, CIHR has updated the eligibility criteria for the Project grant competition. Starting with the Fall 2020 competition, individuals affiliated with Indigenous non-governmental organizations in Canada with a research or knowledge translation mandate are now eligible to apply to the Project grant competition as Nominated Principal Applicants.

Large grants

CIHR reserves a portion of the Project grant competition budget (equal to 5 % of the total budget) to fund large grants. CIHR implemented this policy in 2010-11 to strike a balance between investing in highly ranked applications with large budgets and the imperative to maximize the total number of grants funded. Large grants are defined as the top 2 % of applications when ranked from highest to lowest based on total budget requests. This group of applications is funded as described above (steps 1-3) until the budget is exhausted. If there are applications in this group that fall above the overall competition percent rank cutoff and did not receive funding, they are eligible to be awarded a one-year $100,000 bridge grant, pending available funds.

Ensuring equitable access to research funds

CIHR takes steps to ensure equitable access to funding in the Project grant competition. For example, since 2016, we have ensured that the proportion of applications submitted by ECRs is at least equal to the proportion of ECR grants funded (i.e., if ECR grants are not funded at the same rate as mid-career and senior researchers, then the proportion of ECR grants funded is increased). A portion of the Project grant program budget, provided to CIHR through Budget 2016 that is earmarked for ECRs, is reserved for this process, and if it is not fully expended it is re-invested in the competition.

CIHR will extend these measures to ensure that the proportion of grants funded is at least equal to the proportion of applications submitted by female applicants and for applicants submitting applications written in French. As with ECRs, a portion of the competition budget will be reserved for these interventions. Should the full amount set aside not be required, all remaining funds will be used to fund applications in rank order. A detailed explanation of how this process works will be provided during the Ask Me Anything sessions.

All of us at CIHR are very aware of the stress than can result when CIHR makes changes to its competitions. Please know that the changes we are making here are in response to requests from the Canadian research community, and will help to ensure that the Project grant competition continues to fund excellence, and that we continue to have an equitable, transparent and fair peer review process for both applicants and reviewers.

To achieve these principles, one of CIHR’s priorities will always be to build on our high-quality peer review process. Like many other research funders, we have responded to the pandemic by trying to replicate, as much as possible, the conditions of face-to-face peer review using a virtual environment (in CIHR’s case, Microsoft Teams). We have successfully delivered the Spring 2020 competition, are wrapping up the Fall 2020 competition, and it is looking likely that we will deliver the Spring 2021 competition using the virtual model. It is important to learn from this experience and, while this has been an adjustment for us all, we are pleased to see that for the Spring 2020 competition, most reviewers expressed satisfaction with the virtual peer review process and agreed to engage in future virtual peer review. We have heard from the community that there are benefits to virtual peer review (e.g., improved work-life balance, reduced carbon footprint), and drawbacks (e.g., a loss of collegiality and opportunities for networking). This feedback and on-going evaluation of the virtual process will inform our thinking as we determine, with the community, our approach to peer review as we come out of the pandemic.

I look forward to taking your questions at our upcoming Ask Me Anything sessions. In the meantime, if you have any questions, please reach out to the CIHR Contact Centre at support-soutien@cihr-irsc.gc.ca or 1-888-603-4178.


Adrian Mota
Associate Vice-President, Research Programs (Operations)

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