CIHR cancels flagship funding program to focus on COVID-19 response

Lindsay Borthwick
April 8, 2020

In February, federal granting agencies quickly mobilized millions of dollars for research on COVID-19. But publicly funded researchers across the country — whose labs have been shuttered, projects paused, and staff and trainees scattered — have been anxiously awaiting guidance on managing existing grants and applying for new ones.

Federal funders have now released their plans, bringing some much-needed reassurance to the research community. Though the details vary, funders are extending grants, as well as progress and financial reporting deadlines, adding salary provisions, covering the cost of cancelled travel plans, shifting competition dates, and moving to virtual peer-review.

But one decision by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) has been widely condemned: the suspension of the Spring 2020 Project Grant competition, a $275-million flagship program open to researchers at all career stages that fuels the health research community. (Applications were submitted in early March.)

“I’m pretty disappointed in CIHR,“ said Dr. Bradly Wouters (PhD), executive vice president of science and research at Toronto’s University Health Network (UHN). “The last thing we should be doing right now is pulling money out of research labs.”

CIHR cited the difficulty of meeting funding timelines under pandemic conditions and the need to direct its resources to support the government’s COVID-19 response.

In a letter to stakeholders, President Michael Strong called the decision to cancel the competition “a difficult one,” and stressed that the agency’s priority is “to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and ensure the health and safety of our staff and the research community.”

The decision to cancel the competition was made following consultations with the “Governing Council, Science Council, partners at the U-15, Universities Canada, HealthCareCAN, and the University Delegates Network, among others,” he wrote.

He also stressed that moving to online peer-review for a competition of such scope and scale was not an option.

In an interview with Research Money, Dr. José Zariffa (PhD), a scientist at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute at UHN, who submitted an application last month, called the decision “a tone-deaf response.”

“At a time when the labs are shut down, studies are falling apart, and everybody is low and anxious, this was a lack of leadership,” he said.

CIHR has announced steps to mitigate the impact of the decision. For example, grants due to expire between June 30, 2020, and March 30, 2021, will be financially extended for one year, and researchers who submitted to the Spring competition will have the option to automatically apply to the Fall one. $244 million in residual funding from the Spring competition will be invested in the subsequent competition.

But Zariffa said the strategy could have consequences that outlast the pandemic, particularly for young researchers, who only have a limited period of time to establish themselves. A six-month delay is significant for them, but it also means they lose the chance to get critical feedback from their peers on research proposals that could strengthen future applications. “There is going to be mitigation for some but not for others, such as early-career researchers applying for their first CIHR grant. It’s not necessarily the most vulnerable groups that are going to get the help.”

In a subsequent letter, prompted by outcry from the health research community, Strong addressed concerns about the risks to early-career researchers, indicating that CIHR is exploring strategies to assist them.


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