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CIHR responds to revolt while releasing results

By Betty Zou  •  July 18, 2016

Against a backdrop of tumultuous change and controversy, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) released the results of its latest funding competitions. The news was partly overshadowed by the frustration many Canadian health scientists expressed over recent months about new policies and procedures at CIHR.

Four years ago, CIHR started making drastic changes to its funding programs and peer-review processes. It replaced dozens of programs with “foundation scheme” grants, which can last for up to seven years and are meant for open-ended research; and “project scheme” grants, to support more focused research projects for up to five years. The agency also eliminated the traditional peer-review process that flew leading scientists to Ottawa to discuss and rank proposals in their area of expertise. Under the new system, applications were placed in a general pool and assigned via a computer algorithm to four reviewers who participated in asynchronous online panels overseen by virtual chairs. As the adjudication process unfolded, reviewers and chairs took to Twitter to express their dismay and dissatisfaction with the changes in what has been described as a “peer revolt.”

“The big problem with asynchronous virtual review is [lack of] complete engagement of the reviewer,” says Dr. David Andrews, director of Biological Sciences at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) and a virtual chair in the latest funding competition. Based on comments posted on social media, the problems Andrews encountered in his panel were not unique. Of the roughly 60 reviewers in his panel, some submitted reviews late, others not at all. Most did not provide constructive feedback, a critical part of the review process that helps unsuccessful applicants improve their grants for the next competition. Andrews notes that while some reviewers in his panel engaged in meaningful discussions about the proposals, many did not. In the absence of real-time, face-to-face discussions with their peers, reviewers were often less vested, and therefore less involved, in the process.

Furthermore, the cancellation of two previous rounds of competition caused a massive surge in the number of applications—over 3,800—making it the largest competition in CIHR’s history. “I pointed out to CIHR from the beginning that their numbers didn’t add up,” says Andrews. “Based on the number of applications they expected to have, there are not enough reviewers in the country.” In a last-minute effort to find enough reviewers, the agency recruited adjudicators who may not have been sufficiently qualified in a specific area or given enough time to review the proposals, further compounding the problems.

Stagnant government support and changes to CIHR’s funding programs and peer-review processes have created an atmosphere of uncertainty in Canada’s health research community. This feeling is particularly strong among young scientists who are disadvantaged under a new adjudication system that favours established researchers. Far from helping Canada recruit and retain bright young minds, the changes at CIHR have discouraged many aspiring researchers from pursuing a career as a scientist in this country and prompted them to look elsewhere.

As an outspoken critic of the CIHR reforms, Dr. Jim Woodgett, director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital, often receives emails from scientists about the impact of these changes on their staff and their ability to do research. “Seventy percent of CIHR-funded researchers in Canada have only one CIHR grant,” he says. “If they lose that, they are often forced to make very difficult decisions. The host institutes have very little capacity to tide people over when grants are lost so skilled employees are placed on notice or have to be let go.” Given that it often takes years to train an employee, loss of these highly skilled individuals can be devastating to the advancement of research projects, not to mention to the morale within a lab.

In an open letter to federal Health Minister Jane Philpott, Woodgett called on CIHR “to suspend the roll out of the reforms and to reinstate expert panel-based reviewing where scientists meet and discuss in person.” By July 12 the letter had been signed by 1,338 Canadian scientists, including many at SRI. The letter drew a swift response from Philpott, who instructed CIHR to meet with the scientists to identify problems and propose solutions. At the emergency meeting on July 13, more than 50 scientists met with CIHR staff and senior officials from the ministry in Ottawa. By the end of the day all parties had reached a consensus on several outcomes, chief among them a return to face-to-face peer reviews and the elimination of virtual discussions.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that this government seems to be listening. That’s a good thing,” says Andrews. “The devil is in the details—we’ll wait and see.” His sentiments were echoed by many scientists on Twitter. These agreements are a first step toward rebuilding the relationship between CIHR and Canada’s health research community and restoring confidence in the embattled agency. The next challenge will be implementing the working group’s recommendations in time for the next competition in the fall, the launch of which has already been delayed from June 30.

In the midst of the peer rebellion, SRI scientists secured a total of $12.6 million in funding from both the foundation and project scheme competitions with success rates of 9% and 26%, respectively. The national success rates for the foundation and project scheme competitions were 13% and 16%, respectively,

“Those at SRI who prevailed are to be commended for their research excellence, which is not in question,” says Dr. Michael Julius, vice-president of research at SRI and Sunnybrook. “Even so, I echo David’s comments and trust that this government is listening to those who rely on the agency, for undoubtedly scientists who should have received awards did not. And let me be clear: the scientists who have chosen to work in health research do so because they have a calling and seek to have an impact on people’s lives here and globally.”

A multidisciplinary team led by Drs. Peter Burns and Stuart Foster, senior scientists in Physical Sciences, received a seven-year foundation scheme grant worth $3.7 million to develop next-generation ultrasound imaging technology. Other members of the team include SRI scientists Drs. Kullervo Hynynen, Robert Kerbel, Graham Wright and Martin Yaffe.

Nineteen SRI scientists also secured $8.9 million in funding in the project scheme competition:

  • Dr. Richard Aviv, an affiliate scientist in the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Research Program, was awarded $722,454 over six years to test therapeutic interventions in an animal model of acute spot-sign-positive intracranial hemorrhage.
  • Drs. Nick Daneman and Robert Fowler, scientists in the Trauma, Emergency & Critical Care (TECC) Research Program will receive $2 million over five years to conduct a randomized controlled trial (RCT) looking at the length of antibiotic treatment needed for clinical effectiveness.
  • Dr. Jean Gariépy, a senior scientist in Physical Sciences, will receive $756,855 over five years to investigate the therapeutic potential of a negative immune checkpoint regulator called VISTA.
  • Dr. David Goertz, a scientist in Physical Sciences, was awarded one-year bridge funding worth $100,000 to support his work on catheter-based ultrasound-mediated collagenase therapy for chronic total occlusions.
  • Dr. Paul Karanicolas, a scientist in the Odette Cancer Research Program, will receive one-year bridge funding worth $100,000 to conduct an RCT looking at the effectiveness of tranexamic acid in reducing perioperative blood transfusions during liver resection. He will partner with Dr. Gordon Guyatt at McMaster University.
  • Dr. Robert Kerbel, a senior scientist in the Odette Cancer Research Program, was awarded $607,780 over five years to advance his preclinical work on improving testing of immune-oncology combination therapies for early- or late-stage metastatic disease.
  • Dr. Dennis Ko, a scientist in the Schulich Heart Research Program, will receive $470,169 over three years to study ways to improve care and reduce readmission after acute coronary syndrome hospitalizations.
  • Dr. Avril Mansfield, an affiliate scientist in the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Research Program, was awarded $554,264 over three years to conduct an RCT examining whether aerobic exercise and self-management early after a stroke can increase daily activity.
  • Dr. Diane Nam, an associate scientist in the Holland Musculoskeletal Research Program, was awarded one-year bridge funding worth $100,000 to conduct an RCT on the effectiveness of lithium for fracture treatment.
  • Dr. Avery Nathens, director of the TECC Research Program, and Dr. Barbara Haas, a trauma surgeon, were awarded one-year bridge funding worth $92,500 to evaluate the impact of severe injury on elderly patients.
  • Dr. Damon Scales, a scientist in the TECC Research Program, and Dr. Farhad Pirouzmand, a neurosurgeon, were awarded one-year bridge funding worth $100,000 to conduct an RCT on thromboprophylaxis after traumatic brain injury.
  • Dr. Robert Screaton, a senior scientist in Biological Sciences, will receive $764,500 over five years to establish a comprehensive genetic roadmap for human pancreatic beta cell proliferation and function.
  • Dr. Baiju Shah, a scientist in Evaluative Clinical Sciences, will receive $424,298 over three years to develop risk prediction and computer microsimulation models to aid clinical decision-making and health technology assessment in Type 2 diabetes.
  • Dr. Greg Stanisz, a senior scientist in Physical Sciences, was awarded $895,465 over five years to evaluate brain metabolites following a microbiotic diet using magnetic resonance spectroscopy and chemical exchange saturation transfer.
  • Drs. Bojana Stefanovic and JoAnne McLaurin, senior scientists in the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Research Program, were awarded $898,289 over five years to further their research on promoting neurovascular recovery following stroke. They will partner with Dr. John Sled at SickKids.
  • Dr. Hannah Wunsch, a senior scientist in the TECC Research Program, was awarded $183,480 over two years to study opioid use after critical illness.
  • Dr. Burton Yang, a senior scientist in Biological Sciences, was awarded one-year bridge funding worth $100,000 to study the inhibitory effect of a circular RNA called circ-CCNB1 on ovarian cancer cell growth.

A total of $667 million was awarded in the competitions.