Scientists win peer rebellion, face-to-face review is restored

After a day-long emergency meeting with angry scientists, the federal agency responsible for funding health research has agreesd to restore face-to-face peer review committees.

Emergency meeting restores gold standard of review for scientific projects

Health Minister Jane Philpott speaks in Ottawa on June 6. Philpott ordered the emergency summit meeting, held yesterday, to resolve peer-review funding problems. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

It was a win for Canada's health scientists Wednesday as the Canadian Institutes of Health Research agreed to restore the face-to-face system of peer review.

The reversal follows what amounted to a peer revolt over the last few weeks, as a new online system appeared to collapse under the weight of the largest funding competition in the agency's history. 

During the all-day session, the scientists drafted a plan that would restore the face-to-face peer review committees, while still using aspects of the new virtual review process. 

Now the question is whether the bureaucrats will be able to make it happen in time for the next round of funding in September. 
Dr. Alain Beaudet, CIHR president, commends scientists for working together to fight the peer review changes. (CBC)

"I'm cautiously optimistic," said Jim Woodgett, research director at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute in Toronto,"but the devil is in the details." 

Woodgett was a leading voice in the uprising over changes in the way Ottawa distributes its funding for health and biomedical research.

Instead of bringing scientists together to discuss proposals submitted by their colleagues, to choose the best ideas, the CIHR tried to implement a virtual review where individual scientists evaluated proposals in isolation, ranked them by computer and made comments online, then waited to see if anyone in the virtual group responded.

"A bit like communicating using a 19th-century telegraph," Woodgett said. "It was a failed experiment." 

Word soon spread on social media that reviews weren't being submitted, online discussions weren't happening, and scientists didn't have enough time and, in some cases, enough expertise to do a proper review of the proposals they'd been given,

Within days, an open letter to Health Minister Jane Philpott began circulating, demanding a halt to the changes. The letter was quickly signed by almost 1,300 scientists, including some of Canada' s most prominent researchers. 

Philpott ordered the CIHR to convene an emergency summit to try to resolve the problems before the next round of funding begins in September. So 50 scientists were hastily invited to Ottawa for what was dubbed the CIHR Summit.

One big question was why the system was changed in the first place. CIHR president Dr. Alain Beaudet said it was an attempt to deal with the emerging complexity of biomedical research. 

"We didn't  feel we could do justice to the changing profile of science," he said. "The objective was to be better at appraising excellence."
Brenda Andrews, of the University of Toronto says changes were motivated by Harper government pressure to cut costs and commercialize science. (CBC)

But Brenda Andrews, director of the Donnelly Centre, a multi-disciplinary research institute at the University of Toronto, had another theory.

​"I think the pressures to start the reforms were motivated by the previous government's concern about how much it was costing and the actual urge to move more science into commercial emphasis," she said.

"I think there's a great recognition now with the new government that it's important to support foundational basic research, that is peer reviewed in a very rigorous manner."

Some scientists have called for Beaudet to resign, but after the meeting, he deflected reporters' questions about his future.

"It's a day to rejoice, a day we've achieved something together," he said. He commended the scientists for their collective uprising. 

"This can only work with the community on board," he said. "They are the ones that we work for. I'm extremely happy to see how the community got together and stuck together."

Many of the scientists are not celebrating, as they brace themselves for grim news on Friday when the results of the current round of funding are announced. The CIHR has revealed that only 13 per cent of the scientists applying for money will be successful.


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.