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Dr. Igor Stagljar, a University of Toronto professor and former recipient of CIHR funding, says that he would not be the new funding rules make Canada a less attractive place for scientists.Sam Motala

Major changes in government funding are threatening Canada's robust international standing in health research, with some of the country's top scientists saying it could drive them away.

The Canadian Institute of Health and Research (CIHR), the main federal funding body for biomedical research, has radically shifted its spending strategy as part of a three-year organizational restructuring despite strong objections from the research community.

The CIHR changes, which came to light recently after the first results of the selection process under the new system, place a new emphasis on applied research and alter the peer review system through which the grants are awarded. The reforms scrap several grant opportunities for which all researchers could apply and phase in a system tailored to the more established researchers that allows them to work for seven years instead of four before having to reapply for funding.

In the new peer review system, experts will discuss proposed projects remotely via the Internet rather than in person.

Last week, a group of reviewers from the first competition under the new rules wrote a letter to the CIHR in which they said the new system prevents a fair review. They said it is difficult to evaluate the proposed work properly without discussing it face to face. They also said the new evaluation system makes it harder for younger scientists to obtain the funding.

"Losing a complete generation of promising scientists to an administrative revamping of the operating grant programs would be a disaster, certainly for these individual scientists, but also for the competitiveness of Canada in research and discovery," said the letter, signed by Anne-Claude Gingras and six other reviewers.

After the peer review, proposals are ranked and funds allocated going down the list as far as possible. Whereas 25 per cent of proposals were funded in 2005, the success rate has fallen to 15 per cent as a result of government cuts.

Critics have also said the reforms provide fewer funding opportunities for mid-rank scientists, and reflect the federal government's desire to dictate which research gets the $500-million of the CIHR grants each year.

Some researchers say they are looking for options abroad.

Igor Stagljar uprooted his young family from Switzerland to come to Canada in 2005 for his research career. Dr. Stagljar is a professor at the University of Toronto and a world-renowned scientist who developed a powerful method to discover new cancer genes. He has had CIHR funding, and said he sees Canada differently today.

"I definitely would not be coming to Canada now to pursue research. And if things do not get better in two years, I am out of here," Dr. Stagljar says.

Julie Claycomb, a recipient of CIHR funding, came to Canada four years ago to start her own lab after completing her training in the United States with Nobel Prize winner Craig Mello.

"There was a lot of promise at the time. It makes it hard to see a long-term future here now," she said.

In the early 2000s, the possibilities for biomedical research in Canada expanded enormously as spending doubled to $500-million after the CIHR was formed from the Medical Research Council and with an additional $160-million from agencies such as Genome Canada.

This put Canadian biomedical research on the world map and attracted many internationally competitive scientists.

Discoveries made through biomedical research are the essential fuel that drives health-care progress. The path from the "eureka" moment to patient treatment can be very fast, but is always unpredictable. For example, five years ago, scientists learned how to use an obscure bacterial immune system to change genes. A few months ago, this allowed researchers to fix the mutation causing a common blood disease in human cells. Without basic research, such progress halts.

Officials at the CIHR declined to comment on the reasoning behind the changes, instead pointing to its website. The changes aim "to contribute to a sustainable Canadian health research enterprise by supporting world-class researchers in the conduct of research and its translation across the full spectrum of health, and to ensure the reliability, consistency, fairness and efficiency of the competition and peer review processes."

The changes have already contributed to some researchers leaving Canada. Brian Shoichet, who came to Canada from the United States, quickly returned to his previous institute in San Francisco.

Dr. Shoichet called the plan to eliminate face-to-face peer review, and CIHR officials' "disinclination to take in the critiques of the community" about the changes "disconcerting."

Jovana Drinjakovic is a neuroscientist and a Fellow in Global Journalism at the Munk School at the University of Toronto.

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