To understand what’s going on requires a short primer on how medical research is funded in Canada.
Most of the country’s health scientists apply for funding through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, which receives just over a billion dollars a year from Ottawa for health science research.
About half of that money is awarded through an open competition, in a process so competitive that only around 15 per cent of those who apply are successful in securing research grants.
And scientists were already upset about new rules in that open competition. It overhauled a long standing peer review process where scientists met to discuss which grants were the best candidates for funding. It also set aside almost half of the money to fund a small number of large labs or collaborations, leaving the rest of the scientists to compete for limited funding opportunities.
‘Many of these resource industries are the cause of many of our health problems so to get funding from them would be problematic.’
– Rod McCormick
Those changes had already “imposed significant anxiety and confusion among researchers,” according to one letter sent to the head of CIHR.
Now, adding to that confusion, is a new series of changes that will affect the structure of the CIHR’s 13 research institutes, which specialize in areas such as aboriginal health, child health, gender studies, nutrition, and aging.
The institutes each have their own independent advisory board, and they award grants based on priorities they establish within each institute, to focus on specialized areas of research.
Or at least that’s how it used to be.
Now, in a decision making process described as “shrouded in secrecy,” the CIHR is implementing changes that risk pitting one institute against the other as their budgets are cut in half.
The other half of the money is being pooled into a common fund, and to access that money the institutes will have to compete with each other, and the scientists will have to knock on doors to find matching external funding.
It’s a requirement that has raised particular concerns at the Institute for Aboriginal People’s Health, where researchers fear they have few options for finding those matching funds.
“Unfortunately for aboriginal people, we don’t really have many organizations we can leverage with,” said Rod McCormick, who holds the B.C. Chair in Aboriginal Early Childhood Development at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C. “I don’t think it’s a secret that the Harper government wants us to get our funding from resource industries. But many of these resource industries are the cause of many of our health problems so to get funding from them would be problematic.”