Politics

Scientists concerned focus on COVID-19 disrupting regular health research funds

Canada's health research granting agency has postponed its usual funding competition due to COVID-19, sparking concern the lack of money could disrupt regular health research. 

Federal agencies expected to give a total of about $200 million in COVID-19 grants

An electron microscope image showing the virus that causes COVID-19. Some scientists are concerned that all research funding will be directed into COVID-19 research to the detriment of other areas of health science research. (The Canadian Press/NIAID-RML via AP)

Canada's health research granting agency has postponed its usual funding competition due to COVID-19, sparking concern the lack of money could disrupt regular health research. 

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research put off its regular $275 million competition this spring to focus on delivering federal grants related to the novel coronavirus. 

Researchers rely on that funding, and Dr. Tarik Moroy, president of the Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences, said the delay is likely to disrupt vital work on other health conditions. 

He told the House of Commons health committee last week that Canada is the only country that had a major national health research funding agency cancel its grants during the crisis. 

He acknowledged that Canada was quick to mobilize funds for research related to COVID-19, but worries about the long-term impacts. 

"We worry that this is at the expense of other health research that then will still be necessary after the pandemic is over," Moroy told the committee. 

The CIHR says delaying the competition was a difficult decision, and that Moroy has a point about the effect delaying funds could have on researchers. 

"That competition ran twice a year like clockwork for 15 years," said Adrian Mota, the associate vice-president of research at the granting agency. 

"Cancelling the competition has an important impact on people who are trying to get their research going, they're trying to maintain their lab. They lose that opportunity for four to six months." 

$200M in COVID-19 grants

For people who rely on grants to pay their staff, losing out on the money could have a big impact, he said. Losing staff is especially difficult because they often have specialized skills, and it can be hard to get them back. 

That will mean training someone new when the funds finally become available again, Mota said.

Mota said all that was weighed against the challenges of trying to move ahead during the pandemic, he said. 

CIHR has been one of several granting agencies trying to quickly deliver funding to researchers who are working to better understand COVID-19, its impact and possible treatments. Mota expects the federal agencies to give a total of about $200 million in COVID-19 grants. 

On top of that new workload, staff have had to figure out how to work from home, Mota said. While the United States and Australia were able to handle their competitions remotely, CIHR worried that putting together evaluation panels of 20 to 30 scientists would be impossible, given they have little experience carrying out the process virtually. 

Instead, it has put $31 million into trying to mitigate the impacts on researchers whose grants are set to expire. 

"Admittedly, you're never going to be able to capture all the cases," Mota said. 

The rest of the grant money that was supposed to be allocated this spring will be added to future funding competitions. 

CIHR said it is committed to moving ahead with the next one, scheduled in the fall, even if it has to evaluate applications remotely.

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