Prompted by rising frustrations and warnings from scientists that Canada's system for supporting medical research is heading for a total breakdown, Ottawa has ordered one of its own funding agencies to take action.
In a brief statement issued on Tuesday, Health Minister Jane Philpott told the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to convene a "working meeting" with representatives of the research community to "address issues raised with regard to the quality and integrity" of the agency's process for selecting which projects it funds.
The agency, which allocates about $1-billion for research each year, has raised the ire of scientists over changes to its grant review process.
Those changes include introducing a system of "virtual" peer review, in which expert panels that are formed to discuss and score grant applications do their work entirely online, with no face-to-face discussions over the scientific merits of any particular proposal.
The new system was first implemented in 2014, but it only came into full force this spring with a funding round that involved 3,800 grant applications from scientists at universities and hospitals across Canada.
Numerous stories circulating within the research community suggest the new system is overburdened and not working as planned. Critics say the scientific expertise of some of the participants on the virtual panels are not well matched to the proposals they have been asked to evaluate, and many are far less engaged than they should be.
"There's just a thousand and one horror stories," said Jim Woodgett, director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital. As a consequence of the switch, he said, "there will be a lot of extremely good science that should be funded which will not be funded, and that's going to close labs."
Last week, Dr. Woodgett spearheaded an open letter to the Health Minister, who has oversight over the CIHR. At latest count, about 1,200 medical researchers have added their names to the letter, including some of Canada's most prominent scientists. The letter calls for the agency to suspend its new peer review system, whose design, it says, "shows deep flaws and erroneous assumptions."
Following the minister's statement, CIHR president Alain Beaudet acknowledged in an e-mail to scientists that a meeting to discuss the changes will be convened because the agency "can only be successful if it has the support and confidence of the research community."
No date for the meeting has been set, but it will have to come soon to avoid derailing the next round of funding applications. Dr. Beaudet said that he was postponing the CIHR's announcement of deadlines for the next round until after the meeting has taken place.
Senior researchers and university administrators have been warning for months about precisely such upheavals, but earlier calls for the agency to reconsider how it does business were rejected.
"They can't deny people are upset," said Kristin Baetz, who heads a lab at the University of Ottawa and is president of the Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences. "I'm really proud of the scientists for getting out here and shaking the tree."
According to the minister's statement, results from the meeting should feed into a federal review of funding to all areas of research. The review is already under way and expected to wrap up by the end of the year.
Dr. Woodgett said that waiting for the review panel to issue broad-strokes recommendations about science funding would likely take too long to address the developing crisis in medical research.
He said he has not yet been approached to attend a meeting with the CIHR, but added he would not do so "unless a return to face-to-face reviewing for the next competition is on the table."
"The reason 1,200 scientists signed wasn't to kick the can down the road," he said.