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