Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Support basic research with new leaders at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)

An important article in the Ottawa Citizen calls for the resignation of Alain Beaudet, recently reappointed President of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) ['Demoralized' scientists demand changes at $1B health research agency]. Criticism comes from Michael Rudnicki but he is merely voicing what lots of other researchers feel.
“He has rammed through what he calls reforms which have radically altered the grant delivery system and the system for evaluating grants has been done in a way that distorts the entire process,” said Rudnicki of changes brought in by Beaudet.

Top research scientists from across the country, in interviews with the Citizen, described their mood as demoralized and deeply disturbed by what has been going on at the CIHR. “There is a lot of scorched earth out there,” said one.

According to researchers, the malaise cannot be fixed by simply unmuzzling government scientists. The federal government needs to support basic scientific research, they say, with more money and with a system that is transparent and designed to reward the country’s best and brightest researchers. Instead, researchers say, a series of recent changes at the agency that funds a billion dollars of research each year, notably to the peer review system, have done the opposite.

“The entire research community is very upset and extremely concerned about these changes,” said Rudnicki.

Among concerns are that basic research is getting an ever-smaller share of flatlined funding, in favour of applied or targeted research. Some independent scientists working in labs — doing the kind of work that has led to discoveries such as stem cells — are finding it increasingly difficult to keep going.
The President of CIHR is essentially a government appointee and he or she is not beholding to the researchers (clients) in any legal way. However, I have long advocated that the leadership of CIHR, and the other government funding agencies, should deserve the confidence of the Canadian Research Community and they should resign if they do not have that confidence.

That time has come. Not only has CIHR discouraged basic curiosity-motivated research but the effect of their policies has encouraged university administrators to do the same. We see more and more university resources going into directed research on specific applied targets and the few remaining basic researchers are treated as second class citizens left in the oldest, out-dated, facilities with the fewest university resources.

I will gladly sign any petition calling for the resignation of the CIHR leaders and anyone else who supports their disastrous policies.


  1. Larry, for those outside the Canadian system (my grandfather escaped 2 generations ago), can you help us understand this by characterizing what is being rewarded? Is it too much emphasis on immediate applications? or what?

  2. Presumably, this individual was an appointee of the previous government. What is the rational for the new government keeping him on?

    1. Because in Canada we do not have a tradition of making political appointments to government agencies. The heads of funding agencies are expected to serve whatever government is in power just as are the heads of the major ministries.

      There is no massive turnover of government employees whenever a new government takes over.