The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) is this country’s major source of government funding for biomedical research – the equivalent of the US NIH. They’ve just released a document describing some proposed changes to their grant mechanism portfolio and peer review processes that I thought were worthy of discussion, since I’ve heard similar issues raised on blogs from several countries.
The full document is available here. I haven’t had time to read it in detail yet, but here are the highlights from the executive summary:
New Foundation/Programmatic Research Scheme
The Foundation Scheme is about supporting people. It is about providing long-term support to investigators with a demonstrated track record of success. We want to reduce the time they spend writing grant applications, and leave them more time to conduct research. We want to give them the freedom to create, change, and re-direct their efforts, as required. We also want to give them more time to mentor and develop the next generation of researchers. The assessment criteria for this scheme would be based on the caliber of the applicant, the vision articulated for the proposed program of research, and the support provided to the applicant by their Institution. Applications under this scheme would, therefore, be focused on track-record and the overall approach to a series of research endeavours, rather than on project details or methodology.
Early Career Investigators
CIHR recognizes the critical role that new/early career investigators play in creating a sustainable foundation for the Canadian health research enterprise. This is why we are proposing to have a separate stream in the Foundation Scheme for new/early career investigators – to ensure that new/early career investigators are assessed with their peers and are not competing for funding against established investigators.
They’re also going to run a Project Scheme, which seems to be a slightly modified version of the current Operating Grant programme; this grant is the bread-and-butter means of support for most Canadian biomedical research labs, analogous to the NIH R01.
Focusing Peer Review Criteria
We are considering implementing multi-phased competition processes for both schemes. The intent is to focus reviewer attention on specific criteria at different points in the process. This would be supported by structured review to minimize inconsistent and inappropriate application of review criteria, and to improve transparency of the review process. Both multi-phased competition processes and structured review will help manage applicant and reviewer burden by reducing the number of applicants who move on to full application, and by reducing the length of time it will take to review applications at each stage.
Focusing on the non-obvious funding decisions
We also want to maximize the use of face-to-face committee meetings. Too much of our current committees’ time is spent discussing applications everyone agrees should be funded, or applications everyone agrees have fatal flaws. There is, however, always a “grey zone” where reviewer views are varied for a number of different reasons. We believe that the introduction of a two-phase screening process review will allow for early recognition of outstanding applications, will allow for screening of non-competitive applications, and will concentrate face-to-face discussions on applications that fall into the “grey zone”.
We also want to improve the way applications are matched to reviewers to ensure that appropriate expertise is assigned to each application. This will help to avoid having to “force fit” applications into the standing committee structure. This will be aided by the establishment of a College of Reviewers that will facilitate access to appropriate expertise and provide the framework for mechanisms to recruit, train and reward reviewers for specific roles.
Overall I think these are very positive changes, that if implemented to their full potential will go a long way to addressing some of the more common complaints I hear about the grant application and review processes – not just at the CIHR but across all agencies in various countries. The only part that worries me slightly (beyond the fact that aiming to let PIs spend less time applying for funding might impact my future employability!) is the part about focusing reviewer attention on specific criteria at different points in the process, supported by structured review. To my mind this opens up the process to the possibility of political interference that may not always have the best interests of science in mind… but a change of federal government would help ease my mind on that point!*
I’m planning to read the full document over the next few days, and to answer the survey on the website. If you’re in a CIHR-funded (or CIHR-fundable) lab, I’d encourage you to do the same, and to circulate the document in your own institute. Even if you’re not directly affected, I’d be very interested to hear your views on these potential changes!
*I have been very unhappy to see recent CIHR press releases use the controversial “Harper Government” terminology rather than the “Government of Canada” that has always been used in the past, but that’s a whole different issue.