Scientists protest in frustration over federal research funding chaos

The largest funding competition in Canadian science history is hitting obstacles, as almost 3,000 biomedical and health scientists apply for money to keep their research going.

Researchers start Twitter protest over the largest funding competition in Canadian science history

Canadian researchers are scrambling to deal with funding problems. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Canada's health scientists are furious.

Many have joined together in a virtual scream of frustration, as they watch the system they depend on for science funding crack under the pressure of a series of reforms.

They even have their own hashtag: #Pscream (a play on "Project Scheme," the name of the funding program).

And now some of country's most prominent biomedical researchers are joining the fight, warning about an "imminent crisis."

Gairdner award winners Tak Mak, Janet Rossant, Nahum Sonenburg and Phil Gold have added their names to an open letter to Health Minister Jane Philpott.

And the list of prominent signatories is growing.

It follows social media chatter about chaos in the midst of the largest funding process in Canadian science history.

More than 3,800 applications from an estimated 75 per cent Canada's biomedical and health scientists have arrived at the same time requesting financial support to keep their research going. Careers are hanging in the balance.

And the federal funding agency, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), has chosen this moment to radically transform the way it hands out research money,

CIHR's president Alain Beaudet said the reforms are aimed at strengthening the Canadian health research enterprise.

"A bit like changing the motor of a plane in flight," he said.

How's it going so far? Consider this tweeted image of a locomotive, on fire, falling off a bridge, and you'll get the idea.

New funding algorithm

Most scientists in Canada depend on federal research funding. They write grant proposals explaining what they want to study and how much money they will need, and they submit the application in national competitions that happen on a rotating basis. 

Only a fraction will get funded. To decide which ones are the most worthy, their peers make the call. It's called "peer review" and it's a foundational pillar of science.

In the old system, the peer review was face to face, with scientists getting together, reading all of the applications, discussing them and assigning a score, a process used by almost all of the world's scientific funding agencies.

But the CIHR decided to do it differently, cancelling the face-to-face peer review and moving everything to an anonymous online system.

Scientists have been protesting the changes all along.

In January, the presidents of 15 of the top universities in the country sent a letter to the president of the CIHR asking that the changes be postponed.

In April, the health minister received another letter from more than two dozen leading scientists asking for a halt to the reforms.

The CIHR pushed ahead, even though it knew the computer systems weren't ready and even though it had created an unprecedented demand for research funding by cancelling two earlier competitions as part of the reform process.

That pent-up demand for funding has created the largest ever number of applications, with more than 3,800 projects threatening to overwhelm the untested system.

Inside the CIHR, staff were struggling to find enough reviewers to read all the applications.

One former CIHR official who was there for the initial planning said the new system was launched prematurely.

"I honestly think this system could work well," he said. "But the biggest flaw is the CIHR rushing this through." He left the organization last year because of the chaos. 

According to documents listed under proactive disclosure on its website, the CIHR spent $1.7 million on a computer system that would match grant applications to reviewers with the appropriate expertise, using a complex algorithm.

But this "reviewer and researcher matching solution" wasn't ready, something CIHR officials knew in January.

English only, please

Just weeks before the application deadline, the computer still couldn't be depended on to match reviewer expertise with researcher grants in some areas. And it didn't understand French.

It's just bad science, said Lisa Porter of the University of Windsor, who is also a virtual chair in this review. "They were testing everything at once. As a scientist, you can't switch every variable at the same time. The experiment isn't going to work." 
Lisa Porter, the scientific director of the Windsor Cancer Research Group, calls the CIHR pilot 'bad science.' (CBC)

When the deadline for reviews ended on June 15, the problems started immediately, with some of the scientists tweeting about the chaos they were experiencing.

Reviews had not been submitted, even though the deadline had closed; reviewers failed to join the online discussions; and some of the scientists admitted they didn't have the expertise to do a proper review.

One frustrated scientist confessed he simply didn't bother reviewing three grants as a form of protest.
'There is much at stake for far too many of our colleagues to endure another episode of this failed experiment,' wrote Jim Woodgett in a letter to the health minister. (Linkedin)

Andrea Juriscova is a developmental biologist who was in the midst of the storm, as a virtual chair in charge of a group of reviewers, all grappling with the new system. A week after the deadline, she was still missing reviews and rankings from her group.

"Everybody's frustrated," she said. "Frustration is global, across Canada."

 All of that has created a loss of confidence that the best science will get funded. 

With $275 million in science funding at stake, one researcher tweeted it was like handing out money using a T-shirt gun.

A broken system?

A big question scientists have is why the system needed changing in the first place. One factor was the Harper government freeze on travel expenses.

"It was certainly accelerant for the fire," said the former CIHR official who asked us not to use his name. He said the Treasury Board refused to free up the money needed to bring the scientists to Ottawa for the review committee meetings, which made plans to overhaul the funding process more urgent.

But the CIHR says the scientist themselves had issues with the old model.

They're romanticizing a system that was deeply flawed.- Jeff Latimer, director general of CIHR's priority-driven research branch

"They're romanticizing a system that was deeply flawed," said Jeff Latimer, the director general of CIHR's priority-driven research branch.

Tweeting for science

The CIHR is calling this a "live pilot." In other words, it's just a test.

But for many of the scientists waiting for funding, this could be their last chance.

"I know there are people on fumes being propped up by their institutions, or have laid people off, said Lori Burrows, a McMaster University scientist who is also a virtual chair in this review.

"These are not our 'pilot' careers. These are our lives,"  said one young researcher who did not want to be named, who is watching with horror. 

'Everybody's frustrated'

The majority of people involved in this process have serious concerns.- Jim Woodgett, director of research, Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute

"We urge you to act now to require CIHR to return to face-to-face expert panels, as time is of the essence. There is much at stake for far too many of our colleagues to endure another episode of this failed experiment," wrote Jim Woodgett, author of the open letter to Philpott, and director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute.

But there is no indication the new process will be changed any time soon.

In an email late this afternoon, the health minister said, "I think it's fair to say that the implementation of these reforms has not been universally well received by Canada's health research communities."

Philpott said the concerns about the CIHR reforms will be considered by the advisory panel recently launched by the minister of science to review federal support for fundamental science.

Meanwhile, the almost 3,000 scientists who have applied for money in this round will be getting the news soon.

"I've heard by hell or high water, there will be results on July 15," Woodgett tweeted.

"We've got hell AND high water." Michael Hendricks tweeted back.


Kelly Crowe

Medical science

Kelly Crowe is a health and science reporter, who previously spent more than 30 years reporting on a wide range of national news and current affairs for CBC News.