We value your membership, opinions, and on-going feedback in helping early career health researchers achieve scientific success across Canada. We do our best to hear your voices, listen to your feedback and integrate your innovative ideas. The pandemic has impacted our professional and personal lives and our goal will always continue to provide any support possible for our great Canadian early career health researcher community. In this blog post, we want to tell you - ACECHR members - about our successes and what we have accomplished as a group during the year of 2020-2021.
Members of the National Steering Committee
We thank Dr. Meaghan Jones (National Co-Chair) and Dr. Renée El-Gabalawy (National Steering Committee Member) for their service and commitment to ACECHR. Meaghan will now move into the position of Exiting Chair for the next year. Renée was recently promoted to Associate Professor at the University of Manitoba - Congratulations! This also means we are hosting elections to fill one seat on the National Steering Committee. Stay tuned for details on this upcoming election.
CIHR “Paused the Clock” for ECRs
CIHR reached out to ACECHR in Fall 2020 to identify general areas for improvement for the Canadian early career health researcher community, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One area we discussed was an extension to the limits on “ECR status” for CIHR related matters, equal to delays associated with the pandemic. We recommended a minimum of an additional 12 months, arguing that at the time we were six months into the pandemic and while many labs had reopened, capacity and supply issues were still delaying productivity. Other Stakeholders were consulted on this matter, including the CIHR College Chairs, University Delegates Executive Committee, and representatives of the U-15, NAPHRO, Universities Canada, the Health Charities Coalition of Canada, and HealthCareCAN. From these conversations, CIHR temporarily extended the clock for ECRs: All those who held ECR status as of March 1, 2020—or who secured their first academic appointment after this date—will have their status extended by one year. Subsequently, for the Fall 2021 Project Grants competition, CIHR extended this pause for all ECRs for one additional year (i.e., the ECR term would be extended from 0-72 months to 0-84 months), unless the individual submits a request to opt-out of the pause.
CIHR Reviewer in Training (RiT) Program
When CIHR reached out to ACECHR in Fall 2020 to identify general areas for improvement for the Canadian early career health researcher community, one area we all noted that could use additional thought was the CIHR Observer Program. As a whole, the CIHR Observer Program was an important initiative, but could be improved to give the early career researcher a more prominent voice. We had many fruitful discussions, and the product of these discussions was the CIHR Reviewer in Training (RiT) program. The RiT program was first launched for the Spring 2021 Project Grant competition and offers Early Career Researchers an opportunity to better understand the peer review process through direct participation in the Project Grant competition, with the support of a Mentor. RiT participants are assigned 3 applications to conduct practice reviews, attend the peer review meeting, present their review(s), and participate in the meeting. Following completion of the RiT program, participants will be promoted within CIHR's Reviewer Pathway to participate in peer review when requested and available. The first RiT program (Spring 2021 Project Grants) had 802 applicants, with 122 selected for the program. The most recent competition was for the Fall 2021 Competition, with more information available here.
CIHR Health Research Training Platform (HRTP) Pilot
In January 2021, CIHR released plans for a new and ambitious opportunity to develop research training programs in Canada. A number of ECRs expressed concerns about the structure of the program in its draft version, in particular equity and combining support for trainees and ECRs into a singular approach. The ACECHR National Steering Committee and members submitted a letter to the CIHR Executive asking for clarifications and made suggestions to strengthen the HRTP program. Members of the National Steering Committee subsequently met with a group of CIHR Directors to discuss our concerns. CIHR was receptive and subsequently released a statement clarifying the expected role of early career researchers on HRTP applications. Changes were made to expand possibilities for ECR access to funding for teaching or clinical release.
The Gairdner Foundation
The Gairdner Foundation’s main goal is to recognize and reward international excellence in fundamental research impacting human health. The President and Scientific Director of The Gairdner Foundation, Dr. Janet Rossant, contacted us to initiate a partnership between Canadian Health ECRs and previous winners of the Gairdner award. Six ECRs from Canada were selected to give oral presentations at the Gairdner Science Week 2021: Drs. Van Lu (University of Western Ontario), Hermann Nabi (Université Laval), Tobias Karakach (Dalhousie University), Bertrand Routy (Université de Montréal), Sarah Elton (University of Toronto), and Samira Mubareka (Sunnybrook Health Science Centre). Congratulations to the presenters!
Canada Research Contingency Emergency Fund (CRCEF)
In response to the needs of the research community early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the Federal government implemented the Canada Research Contingency Emergency Fund. This fund was meant to help researchers cover costs associated with lost time, resources, salary, and materials during the time laboratories across the country were shut down for safety. Early on there was confusion about who qualified for these funds and how - many of the initiatives were focused on external funding sources from federal, provincial, or nonprofit sources. ECRs were concerned about losses on their startup funds, which are essential to establishing new research labs, and which were specifically excluded from early rounds of CRCEF funding. ACECHR Steering Committee members reached out to CRCEF to determine a) why startup was excluded and b) how pandemic-related losses to startup funds would be managed in the future. Their recommendation was lobbying at the individual institution level for access to later waves of funding, as CRCEF’s mandate did not cover internal funds like start-up without specific requests from institutions. Rollout was patchy and mixed across institutions, but many ECRs across Canada did receive some compensation for startup costs incurred during lab shutdown.
ACECHR Representation at the Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC2020)
On Monday, November 16, 2020, ACECHR Co-Chair, Dr. Meaghan Jones, participated in a panel discussion at CSPC 2020 on "Supporting the Research Ecosystem in Times of Crisis: Good Practices for a More Resilient Research | Soutenir l'écosystème de recherche en tant de crise: Bonnes pratiques pour une recherche plus résiliente". The aim of this panel was to have a critical discussion on COVID-19’s negative impacts and the best practices to tackle them. Dr. Jones discussed ECR-specific challenges early in the pandemic, including building and maintaining an engaged research group in a primarily virtual setting, the cancellation and reinstatement of the 2020 Spring CIHR project grants, differences across institutions on extensions of tenure clocks, and the need for future reviewer training on interpretations of the impacts of the pandemic on ECRs establishing their independent research groups.
Thank you, everyone!
We're conducting a survey of start-up packaged offered and awarded to new faculty/new scientists who do health research in Canada. You are eligible if you started a position as an independent investigator in health research in Canada between 2008 and 2018 (inclusive).
We will share the compiled results afterwards so you can see how your start-up package compared to those of your peers.
Edit: The survey is now closed. We will post a link here to the completed report as soon as it is available.
1. Restoring TriCouncil: B
The Good: Budget 2017—with nothing for the granting councils—was hard for Canadian researchers. We were still on our honeymoon with a new government that had told us everything we wanted to hear about how they valued science and recognized the dire condition our science funding system is in. Budget 2018 will increase the operating budget of the Tricouncil by $925M, though it will take five years to get there. This is a real dollar increase of 14%.
The Bad: It is not enough. It falls short of the recommendation of the Fundamental Science Review, which was considered by many to be a near-minimum, stabilizing investment. The Fundamental Science Review (page 35) identified an overall decrease of 35% in “resources available per active researcher to do investigator-led research.” We have heard from this government that Canadian science suffered a decade of neglect, and we agree. The TriCouncil increases described here can safely be called "no longer neglected" but they cannot be called a growth investment. Yet this government wants growth, as indicated by large investments in recruitment and infrastructure. We hope that this budget is a start to backfilling the hole the granting council programs have been in.
2. Open, unfettered programs: B-
The Good: 28.6% of the funds in section 2.1 are allocated to the first line item, “Granting Councils.” Another 9.2% are allocated to, “Granting Councils: New Tri-Council Fund,” and “Granting Councils: Increasing Diversity in Science.” The extent to which these latter two address shortfalls in open funding remains to be seen as details of implementation emerge, but there is potential for them to do so. The New Tri-Council Fund may help address the difficulties identified in the Fundamental Science Review around funding interdisciplinary research, particularly when disciplines cover more than one agency. We hope this new fund will reproduce the strengths of existing open programs. Open programs have few restrictions on field or investigator factors, use existing, rigorous processes to review proposals and administer funds, and are arguably the most efficient means of procuring research.
The Bad: Two of the main weaknesses of the funding system identified in the Fundamental Science Review were 1) an imbalance in which strategic funds were too large a proportion of federal science funding, and 2) a proliferation of niche mechanisms at the expense of core operating grant programs. About a quarter of the funds in section 2.1 are allocated to targeted programs. This approaches the same proportion as the potentially open operating funds above. The Fundamental Science Review recommended a significant movement back toward the 70:30 balance of open to targeted operating funds that existed in the 2000s. The programs listed in section 2.1 are undoubtedly good programs, but as details emerge of how these funds are allocated, the potential ratio between unfettered and fettered funds remains a concern.
3. Operating, salary, infrastructure, and indirects: C
The Good: Funding research is how the federal government procures knowledge and technical expertise, trains skilled workers for advanced industries, and addresses short-, medium-, and long-term societal needs on behalf of taxpayers. It is good that this government recognizes the real costs of research. There is little point in hiring and funding scientists who do cutting-edge research if our universities can't provide the buildings, facilities, and overhead required to support these efforts. This budget addresses some issues with the unpredictability of infrastructure funding.
The Bad: There is money in this budget for new CRCs (people) and an emphasis on infrastructure growth. These are necessary, but were never the major problem, as made clear well before and within the Fundamental Science Review. The most urgent problem is that operating funds have not kept pace and are insufficient for the people and infrastructure we have. This budget continues to get the balance wrong, in the same way the previous government’s budgets did. It maintains a low indirect cost rate to institutions against the strong recommendations of the Fundamental Science Review.
4. Equity, diversity, and inclusion: A
The Good: Canada seems to be moving toward a US Title IX-type requirement that institutions receiving federal funds have adequate policies for dealing with gender discrimination and sexual harassment. The government is incentivizing the implementation of Athena SWAN, an equity program that originated in the UK, and better data collection at research institutions.
The Bad: Giving funds to institutions to address their equity problems is good, but does not directly address the biases some researchers fact in obtaining research support. The government "expects" granting councils to target new CRCs to early-career researchers (ECRs). CRCs are salary awards. Early-career scientists, just like everyone else, need operating funds to conduct research. It is worth noting that in 2015, over half of the scientists holding a CIHR-funded Tier 2 Canada Research Chair lacked CIHR operating funds. Neither the expansion of this program nor its suggested targeting toward ECRs will address the research funding concerns faced by ECRs. The most equitable and fair way to support ECRs (who are also the most diverse pool of scientists) is to have robust open granting programs. These programs are where early-career researchers thrive, and this is where gender disparities in funding outcomes are lowest. (We lack data about any other disparities.)
5. Sustainability: C
The Good: Multi-year commitment to permanently increased base budgets for granting councils.
The Bad: The mismatch between growth in people and infrastructure relative to open operating funds, unaddressed in this budget, will continue to impede Canadian research. There is little in this budget addressing the carefully articulated and critical "researcher lifecycle" issues raised in the Fundamental Science Review. Without a clear signal that Canada's research ecosystem will have the long-term capacity to provide fair, competitive opportunities for researchers at all career stages to obtain operating funds, sustainability remains a weakness.
6. Honesty: A-
The Good: The budget is largely transparent in terms of science policy.
The Bad: This was referred to this as "the single largest investment in investigator-led fundamental research in Canadian history." This is not a single investment, it goes into effect and ramps up over five years. Annualized, the investment is better characterized as moderate compared to previous budgets. In the early 2000s, the granting councils had multiple larger annual increases to their base budgets than this budget proposes.
Overall Grade: B
We approached this grading exercise from the reference point that full implementation of the Fundamental Science Review would result in an A. This budget is a good start, thus earning a B. It is responsive to the Fundamental Science Review and takes steps toward the Minister of Science's laudable and essential goal of improving equity in academic research. However, "responsive to" is only a start, and Budget 2018 falls short on important parts of the Naylor Report: the scale of the reinvestment in open operating supporting, correcting the strategic vs. discovery imbalance that has developed over the past decade, and improving the balance among operating, infrastructure, and salary support. These imbalances remain, with moderate investments made across the board.
Researchers need to make a stronger case for how essential open programs are to the government's goals of a world-class, equitable research enterprise that trains and supports the next generation of researchers, generates new knowledge, puts Canada back on track to compete internationally in research, and solves problems for Canadians and people around the world.