The Executive Summary is below, while the comprehensive report is available in PDF format.
Health research funding has become increasingly competitive in Canada. Between 2005-06 and 2014-15, success rates for full term open operating grants at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) halved from 30% to 15%. Grants deemed fundable by reviewers went from being funded about half the time to about one fifth of the time. Low funding rates undermine health researchers’ ability to generate new knowledge and improve Canadians’ health outcomes.
These falling success rates have had negative impacts on many scientists. Early career investigators (ECIs), defined as those within the first 5 years of their independent careers, have been particularly hard hit. Between 2008-09 and 2014-15, CIHR funding awarded to ECIs declined by 38%. Adding to these concerns, recent changes to CIHR funding programs (‘CIHR reforms’) threaten to remove a full third of total funding awarded to ECIs annually.
The Association of Canadian Early Career Health Researchers (ACECHR) organized and ran an informal survey Mar 17-24, 2016 to gather personal accounts from ECIs about their experiences in the current funding environment. In one week, we received 143 responses from verified early career health researchers in Canada who hold competitive positions and have a history of research success. Highlights of our findings include:
In respondents’ words:
I am Canadian and always wanted to come back to Canada after my training but am starting to think that I have made a mistake. -Respondent 40 (page 37)
I am falling behind scientists in other countries [...] I am deeply worried that this will end my career in research right as it is meant to be taking off. -Respondent 7 (page 42)
There is a feeling among our trainees that there is no future for them in science in Canada. Some leave the country, and others decide to pursue other fields. -Respondent 113 (page 45)
Some of my highest quality colleagues are leaving Canada because of the uncertain funding climate. I am considering the same. -Respondent 42 (page 55)
If Canada wishes to foster the future of health research in our country, a recognition of this significant ECI disadvantage and a meaningful resolution must be reached immediately or the investment made to train today's most ambitious and successful young researchers in our country will be lost. Time is of the essence. -Respondent 41 (page 59)
A PDF of this statement is available here.
We are gratified to have the concerns of early-career investigators (ECIs) acknowledged as we enter CIHR’s first Project Scheme Pilot. As key stakeholders, we hope to work with CIHR to determine how to best build research capacity through policies that support sustainable research funding.
Health research is an integral part of Canada’s innovation portfolio and is essential for the continued well-being of Canadians. But this enterprise is in jeopardy as many Canadian scientists face unprecedented challenges posed by an unsustainable funding environment. ECIs and mid-career investigators (MCIs) represent the future of health research in Canada. But without realistic opportunities to obtain operating funds from CIHR, many of these research programs are doomed to fail.
While researchers of all career stages are under tremendous funding pressure, the cohort of ECIs starting independent careers during the reform/transition period have had half the normal number of opportunities to obtain their first operating grant (due to cancelled competitions) while success rates are the lowest in CIHR’s history. Our situation is worsened by just 5% of the funds available in the first Foundation pilot being awarded to ECIs. This distortion means that, even if ECIs do as well in Project as in they did in the OOGP, there will be a large drop in overall funding to this group across the Open Programs. We realize these are pilot programs, but these are not our pilot careers.
A PDF of the letter in French and in English is available here.
“Early-career investigators” (ECIs) are typically assistant professors at research universities and hospitals who have held their positions for 5 years or less. Like many other researchers in Canada, ECIs rely on CIHR for grant funding. However, increased competition, declining success rates, and recent changes to the grant programs at CIHR have severely disadvantaged early-career scientists. The Canadian Foundation for Innovation, the Canada Research Chairs program, and universities invest millions each year to recruit these scientists and equip their labs. These investments are squandered when ECIs are not given adequate opportunities to obtain funding to operate their labs and conduct research.
Under the previous CIHR grant system, ECIs received approximately 18% of the funds. Starting in 2015, however, CIHR transferred 45% of its grants budget to the new Foundation Scheme. In the first year of the Foundation,ECIs received just 5% of the funds awarded. While a quota guaranteed that 15% of grants were awarded to ECIs, these awards were on average a third the size of those given to established researchers. CIHR is the only major health research agency in the world whose current granting system awards systematically smaller grants to early-career investigators.
The remaining 55% of the CIHR budget goes into the new Project Scheme, launching this year. At current budget levels and with increased application pressure, success rates will be at an all-time low. Even if ECIs do as well in the Project Scheme as in the old system (~18%), an optimistic assumption, low funding in Foundation means that CIHR will decrease overall support for ECIs by over 30%, from approximately $90 million per year to $60 million.
ECIs face obstacles at grant review due to a lack of documented experience compared to established investigators. In the previous system, CIHR review panels had a culture of actively promoting ECI success. These in-person panels have been disbanded in favour of an online system where reviewers are not required to consider career stage, which is likely to reduce ECI success in the Project Scheme.
SOLUTIONS: Most funding agencies like CIHR have compensatory mechanisms to ensure ECI success, yet CIHR’s Project Scheme has none. At the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, the “fundable score” cut-off is adjusted so that ECI success rates match those of other applicants. This simple solution does not require a special funding program or changes to the peer review process, and it has worked well since its implementation in 2009.
On behalf of current and future new investigators in Canadian health and biomedical research, the signatories of this letter request immediate action to fulfill CIHR’s legal mandate to build research capacity through equitable investment in the next generation of scientists:
List of signatories