Health minister orders emergency meeting with furious scientists

Furious scientists prompt an emergency meeting about changes to the peer review system for awarding health and biomedical research funding.

Canada's 'peer revolt' gets Jane Philpott's attention

Health Minister Jane Philpott has ordered an emergency meeting between furious scientists and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

With hundreds of scientists furious about changes to the way their research is funded, Health Minister Jane Philpott has ordered the federal funding agency to hold an emergency meeting. 

"I have noted with growing concern the views that have been expressed within the health research community about changes being implemented at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)," Philpott said in a message to Canada's health research community. 

Peer reviewers revolt

The health minister called for the meeting after what amounted to a peer revolt among Canada's health researchers.
Jim Woodgett, author of an open letter from scientists, is director of research of the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. (Linkedin)

Last week, more than 1,200 scientists, including some of the country's most prominent researchers, signed an open letter expressing alarm at the chaos that had erupted during the latest round of science funding. 

Philpott had strong words for the CIHR, which is an agency of Health Canada. 

"I expect CIHR to ensure that the very best health research across all pillars is funded according to the highest international standards of research excellence," she said in the statement posted on the ministry's website. 

So next week, CIHR officials will meet with an invited group of scientists to talk about what went wrong with the new online system. 

"It's very welcome and indicates the minister recognizes there is a significant problem. Twelve-hundred and fifty scientists aren't usually wrong," said Jim Woodgett, director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute and author of the open letter.

Scientists tweeted about the chaos as it unfolded over the last two weeks.  Reviews were not submitted, reviewers didn't participate in the online discussion, and some scientists said they didn't have the expertise to properly evaluate the proposed experiments.

Reviews still missing after deadline 

Also, the new computer system that was supposed to match reviewers with grants in their areas of expertise wasn't working properly. 

The process was especially chaotic because this was the largest grant competition in the CIHR's history. More than 3,800 applications were submitted from 3,000 scientists, a pent-up demand for research funding created because two previous grant competitions were cancelled, as part of the reforms.

Lisa Porter, the scientific director at the Windsor Cancer Research Group, says CIHR should immediately resume face-to-face peer review for science funding. (CBC)
Lisa Porter, a cancer researcher from the University of Windsor in Ontario, chaired one of the virtual committees. She was still missing reviews when the deadline closed. She would like the CIHR to resume the face-to-face peer review process, and slowly implement changes. 

"To me that would be the most reasonable way to restore balance to the system," she said.

"Urgency is important," said Woodgett. "It's critical that changes in response to the mess we're in right now are made before the next competition. Otherwise, that would really twist the blade. But I don't know how much they're willing to change."

Meanwhile, scientists are anxiously waiting for the results of the current competition, expected on July 15. Most will be disappointed. 

"We only fund the top 10 to 15 per cent of research," said Woodgett. "A lot of really good research is not going to get funded."

The CIHR had received a series of warnings from scientists, and university presidents, about its plans to reform the peer review system. The original system involved face-to-face panels of reviewers, meeting in more than 50 different peer review committees, a process used by most of the world's scientific funding agencies.


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.