The downhill race between NSERC and CIHR

We have already reported that the success rate for NSERC’s Discovery Grants have fallen from 71 per cent in 2008, to 64 percent in 2009, and to a record-low level of 58 per cent this year.

Not to be outdone, CIHR’s success rate for this year’s individual Operating Grants competition is down to 15%.

It might be high time for Statistics Canada to start collecting data and measure the thousands of hours wasted by Canada’s researchers in filling forms and preparing proposals that lead to nowhere.

The good news is that our brothers and sisters in health research have decided that they are not taking it anymore, and nearly 1,800 people have already  signed a petition protesting the ridiculously low success rates in the individual CIHR Operating Grants competition. You can see the petition here, where they make some very good (and statistically sound) arguments suggesting that at such low success rate,  the peer-review process is not precise enough to accurately award grants based on quality. Indeed, there is much randomness in a process that picks the fundable projects in a pool of proposals deemed equally excellent.    Many applications rated “excellent” were not funded, and those that were funded were so by chance. The signatories rightly lament this state of affairs and urge the government to rectify it.

What is interesting is that CIHR’s management issued an official public (and I would say defensive) rebuttal to the claims in the petition stating that the success rate was actually 24%. But the eagle eyes of the health research community are pointing out that to get to that percentage, CIHR staff had to also count the 1 year/100K bridge grants, which they should have at least pro-rated for their shorter (1/3) term.

We don’t need to go far to see what’s behind this sad state of affairs, since just like NSERC, CIHR is suffering from 3 ailments:

1)  A significant shift towards targeting research funding according to government directives, or according to what Tri-council bureaucrats think are government directives, or worse, according to what could please whatever section of government they want to please.

Quoting Polanyi again, “It is an abiding mystery why having failed so definitively to pick winners in the marketplace for goods, governments have been empowered to pick winners in the far more subtle marketplace for ideas.”

According to our friend Rob Annan, who alerted us to the story, “the main reason this is happening, is that CIHR is increasingly “hands-on” in its management of research. We stop trusting smart, productive people with good ideas to continue being smart, productive and full of good ideas.  In place of individual creativity of our researchers and evaluation by learned peers, research areas and approaches are determined by bureaucrats in a doomed attempt to direct outcomes.”

2) The new focus on research partnerships with the private sector. Again, just like NSERC, one sees that “CIHR intends to focus increasingly on solution-based research that involves collaboration between researchers and users” (CIHR Strategic Plan 2009, p. 24). This de-facto leads to decreasing the funding for basic research and increasing the proportion allocated to manager-dominated “solution-based” research targets decided by committees, consultants, and other rain-makers.

3) Inadequate government funding illustrated by the cuts in the 2009 federal budget, which were not corrected enough by the more positive 2010 budget. For example, the $32-million increase in the 2010 tri-council funding did not erase the $43-million cut of the 2009  budget.

It is therefore extremely important for all of us researchers to make our voices heard, and to draw a line in the sand.

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11 Responses to The downhill race between NSERC and CIHR

  1. I think that these problems may be unavoidable. Effectively, once you give a monopoly regarding research funding to a few people, you can’t expect robustness and diversity.

    See this related blog post of mine :

    Public funding for science?

  2. Nancy says:

    The CIHR success rate certainly represents an inordinate amount of wasted time for researchers seeking funding. Lest we NSERC-supported feel ‘lucky’ that our success rates are at least higher than 15%, it should be remembered that CIHR-funded researchers can, and usually do, hold several CIHR grants at the same time. In contrast NSERC grantees can hold just one Discovery Grant, probably one reason why Team Discovery Grants are rarely sought.

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  9. melt4 says:

    Just received today results… not funded. An other 2 months work dediated only to those 2 grants… One problem, amongst many, is, compare to 10 years ago, it’s now “normal” to send 2 or even 3 projects. Just in case. It’s generated even more work to researchers (writing and reviewing). It’s seems to create a bottleneck at CIHR, we and some others, were changed of review committee. Bad thing, grants were not written to this audience.

  10. There is another petition going on right now (2013), instigated by the medical informatics community, because CIHR has no expertise (no dedicated peer-review committee) devoted to the interdisciplinary field of health informatics (neither does NSERC or SSHRC), leading to chronic underfunding of academic ehealth research, while the government is blowing billions of dollars in electronic health records and ehealth infrastructures.
    Please sign:

  11. I apply to SSHRC – which has seen a similar decline in success rates.
    How much of the decline is also a result of giving more money to fewer scholars through ‘super grants?’ (or Partnership grants in SSHRC terms). I’m on two of these grants that have between 20 and 50 scholars – and the costs involved in bureaucracy, coordination and communication are astounding.. And the projects that result from these grants (as sub grants) are not as robust as those that would have been carried out by the researchers were it their own individual grant.

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