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Holly Witteman, an assistant professor in the faculty of medicine at Laval University, speaks at gathering of scientists in Ottawa to discuss concerns about the federal system for funding health research.
Holly Witteman, an assistant professor in the faculty of medicine at Laval University, speaks at gathering of scientists in Ottawa to discuss concerns about the federal system for funding health research.

Pushback from scientists forces overhaul of funding system in Canada Add to ...

Following a hastily convened meeting of scientists and bureaucrats in Ottawa on Wednesday, the federal agency that funds most of the biomedical and health research conducted in Canada is overhauling its controversial system of reviewing grant proposals.

The outcome is seen as a victory by scientists, who argued that a funding system recently implemented by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) is fatally flawed and risks misallocating some of the $1-billion in research grants that the agency distributes each year.

Last week, Health Minister Jane Philpott ordered the agency to organize the meeting in response to mounting complaints and an open letter signed by more than 1,300 researchers. A statement issued by the minister’s office on Wednesday evening said “the meeting has resulted in a number of key improvements that CIHR has agreed to implement immediately.”

The most significant change includes a return to a face-to-face system of peer review for all research grant proposals that make it past an initial cull. That would require CIHR to convene independent panels of scientists to meet in person to assess and rank individual proposals for funding. Under the previous system, which CIHR began introducing in 2014 and was universally employed for funding competitions this year, most face-to-face meetings were replaced with a virtual system that only required reviewers to submit comments electronically. Many researchers said this led to less careful reviews that did not ensure the best proposals would rise to the top.

“When you’re in the room with other people, there’s more accountability. … You go in as a champion of the grants you want to see funded,” said Kristin Baetz, a University of Ottawa researcher and president of the Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences.

Dr. Baetz, who was one of about 50 scientists who participated in the meeting, said she was pleased that the agency came prepared to consider and implement solutions that scientists put forward, ideally in time for the next funding competition this fall.

Another matter on the table was CIHR’s adoption of a computer algorithm to pick who would sit on grant review panels, a system that researchers say does not work well, especially for those whose proposals cut across disciplines and require panels with diverse expertise to obtain a fair assessment.

“Experienced scientists, not computer programs with limited and flawed data, should identify and assign reviewers for applications,” said Brenda Andrews, a molecular geneticist and lab director at the University of Toronto who also attended the meeting.

Holly Witteman, an assistant professor at Laval University in Quebec City and national co-chair of the Association of Canadian Early Career Health Researchers, said problems with CIHR’s peer review system were exacerbated by tight budgets and low success rates, all of which tend to work against younger scientists. She added that addressing the current turmoil over the system was essential to encouraging the government to improve a relatively bleak funding environment.

“Once the community has confidence in the grant review process again, hopefully there will be a renewed investment in health research as well,” she said.

Only 13 per cent of applicants are expected to come away with any funding at all when the results of the latest CIHR competition are released this Friday.

Alain Beaudet, CIHR president, said the Wednesday meeting had achieved a consensus that he hoped would restore the community’s trust in the agency.

“We arrived at a good place – a place where I feel comfortable going,” he said.

But Jim Woodgett, director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto and a leader in organizing the pushback against CIHR’s peer review process, was more cautious.

“We are back on track but the problems of the peer review system will become apparent when people get their reviews on Friday,“ he said.

Suggesting that CIHR would have been better off heeding researchers worries months ago, he added: “And this was all so unnecessary.”

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