What you should know about the Fall 2021 Project Grant competition
Message from Adrian Mota, Associate Vice-President, Research Programs (Operations)
On behalf of the team at CIHR, I would like to express our deep appreciation to Canadian scientists for your continued support and assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are now at the end of the Spring 2021 Project Grant competition, and we extend our thanks to all those who participated in this competition – reviewers, Chairs, Scientific Officers (SOs), CIHR staff, applicants, and staff at research institutions.
It is now time to focus on the Fall 2021 Project Grant competition and I would like to share with you some updates on this competition.
The ongoing impact of the pandemic
While we are seeing some signs of emerging from the pandemic, its impact on the research community has been laid bare. It is critical, therefore, that CIHR continues to ensure stability in the Project Grant program and the policies that underpin it. It is also imperative that CIHR continues to make policy decisions that are fair, transparent, and based on data.
While none of us has been spared the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and its disruption of the research ecosystem, its effects continue to disproportionately impact a number of groups. In particular, those most impacted include women, racialized communities, those with caregiver responsibilities, and early career researchers (ECRs)Footnote 1 Footnote 2Footnote 3. CIHR continues to monitor its programs closely to understand how this may influence the applications received. We will continue to explore ways to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic on all researchers and to make our programs, policies, and procedures more equitable, inclusive, and diverse.
In response to the pandemic, CIHR “paused the clock” for ECRs. While this pause is due to end, the conditions that led to its implementation have not. As such, CIHR will extend the pause for all ECRs for one additional year (i.e., the ECR term would be extended from 0-72 months to 0-84 months) unless an individual submits a request to opt-out of the pause. At this time, we invite ECRs who wish to opt-out of their “paused clocks” to register their choice to do so by submitting a request to CIHR through the Contact Centre at the time of application. This will allow those who qualify and who want to be considered as mid-career researchers (MCRs) to now do so. Those ECRs who do not wish to opt-out of their pause will have their ECR status automatically re-extended for one additional year. CIHR will ensure that all ECRs can continue to benefit from programs and policies such as the Reviewer in Training Program and the equalization process in the Project Grant competition. Based on their decision, an individual will be considered either an ECR or an MCR for all CIHR programs and policies.
I want to acknowledge that the impacts of COVID-19 are not limited to ECRs and that other career stages, including MCRs, have had their work interrupted as well. In response, we introduced the Summary of Progress, which allows applicants to outline how the pandemic has impacted their activities and how it will affect their research proposal. We are in the process of gathering feedback from Chairs, SOs, and committee members to understand the extent to which the Summary of Progress has been of assistance to the community. Given that this analysis is ongoing, no changes will be made to the Summary of Progress for the Fall 2021 competition. We encourage all applicants to continue to use the Summary of Progress to describe the impacts of the pandemic on their research activities.
CIHR will also provide extensions to the authority-to-use funds date for any active grant at the request of a researcher. These requests, which will be assessed on a case-by-case basis, will give researchers additional time to use any residual funds to compensate for disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Individuals who would like to submit a request for an extension can do so by reaching out to the CIHR Contact Centre at firstname.lastname@example.org with a short justification to support their request.
We will continue to monitor these issues closely and are prepared to implement additional interventions as appropriate.
Virtual peer review
Peer review committee meetings for the Fall 2021 Project Grant competition will continue to be conducted virtually using MS Teams. In part, this is due to continued uncertainty with respect to the vaccination rates expected across Canada, the COVID-19 numbers, and the effects of variants of concern. However, and as pointed out by many of you, face-to face and virtual meetings each have their strengths and weaknesses. Given this, we will continue reaching out for your input on the future of peer review and your experiences with the virtual review processes to date. This includes working with the University Delegates, surveying all those who participated in the Spring 2021 competition (as we did for the Fall competitions), and reviewing feedback from an online survey open to the entire research community that will be launched soon. Once we have analyzed all these responses, they will be shared widely with the research community and will be used to inform any future decisions regarding the conduct of peer review.
The across-the-board cut
We stand by our commitment to remove the across-the-board cut as soon as possible. Removing the cut responds to feedback from the community, will strengthen investigator-initiated research, and will provide applicants with the funding they need to complete the research proposed, as assessed by peer review. At the same time, we recognize that removing the across-the-board cut has important implications for our competitions, which include most notably the inherent risk of funding fewer grants. The following graph illustrates how eliminating the across-the-board cut may impact the number of grants funded.
What does the graph above show? Since 2018, CIHR has funded a median 370 Project grants per competition, with a median success rate of 15.3%. CIHR is only able to fund this number of grants because it applies an across-the-board cut of 23.5% to all awarded amounts (in addition to any reduction recommended by the committee). If CIHR had not applied the across-the-board cut in these competitions, the median number of grants funded per competition would have fallen by 87, to 283 grants funded—a success rate of 11.7%.
How did we arrive at these numbers? The average total amount recommend by peer review for funded Project grant applications is approximately $950,000. Cutting 23.5% per funded grant frees up around $223,000 and drops the average approved grant amount to about $725,000; cutting the budget of approximately 3.25 grants funds one additional grant ($725,000/$223,000).
This means that when CIHR eventually removes the across-the-board cut, if nothing else changes, the number of grants funded (and success rates) will decline.
CIHR originally implemented the cut so the agency could fund a minimum number of highly ranked applications. However, we know this influenced investigators’ budget requests and added a layer of complexity for budget discussions at peer review committees. For a successful reset (removing the cut), it is essential that all members of the research community have time to adapt and understand the implications of this action if no further mitigating strategies are introduced.
For this reason, we will delay implementing this major change, to ensure that peer review committee members have the information that they need to properly assess budget requests, and that applicants become comfortable using the Summary of Progress to clearly contextualize their budget requests. CIHR will also work with researchers, Chairs, and SOs to develop an approach to support the eventual implementation of this change. In the absence of such an approach, removing the across-the-board cut would be more challenging.
Taken together, these actions will allow CIHR to continue to build on the experience gained through the pandemic to ensure fair, transparent, and equitable investigator-initiated research competitions. We are indebted to all those who have provided feedback and advice, and will continue to listen carefully and bring about change using an evidence-based and consensus-driven approach.
Thank you for your continued support. We extend our best wishes for good health.
Associate Vice-President, Research Programs (Operations)
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