Saturday, December 19, 2015

Here's why Alain Beaudet, President of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, should resign

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) is the main source of research funding for Canadian health researchers, including those doing basic research like most of the researchers in my biochemistry department.

A few years ago, CIHR decided to revamp the process of applying for and obtaining research grants. They did this without taking into consideration the wishes of most applicants. (They did "consult," but consulting isn't the same as listening.)

The result has been a disaster. Most researchers are confused and discouraged by the new process and there's great fear that the results of the next competitions will be harmful to basic research and harmful to new investigators.

But even before the new rules came into play the funding of basic, curiosity-motivated, science was taking a major hit. Many mid-career basic researchers at the University of Toronto have lost their grants or are struggling to make do with a lot less money. This is partly due to a lack of money in the system but it's been exacerbated by a deliberate shift in priorities under the previous Conservative government of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

These are some of the reasons why Canadian researchers have been calling for Alain Beuadet to resign [Support basic research with new leaders at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)].

In light of the controversy surrounding CIHR and the grant process, you would think that the President would take responsibility for the mess and quit. You would think, at least, that in the annual report there would be some mention of the problems and how they are going to be fixed. Let's look at the President's Message.
Q: What were CIHR’s biggest accomplishments or milestones of 2014-15?

... After years of preparation and work, we launched the first Foundation grants competition. This first pilot was a huge challenge for CIHR. It was, for researchers, a new way of writing a grant; for evaluators, a new way of reviewing a grant; and for CIHR, a new way of administering the grant delivery process. At the same time, we were holding the last competition of our traditional open program. So, it was a bit like changing the motor of a plane while in flight!
No mention of the fact that attempting to do something as stupid as changing the motor of an airplane in flight had the predictable outcome. The plane crashed and burned!

But here's the part that upsets me more than the grant application fiasco.
Q: We are seeing a shift toward more collaboration and partnerships in health research – why is this happening?

Research is changing. Nobody is doing their own research in isolation anymore. We have discovered that innovation flourishes when we bring people from different disciplines together. Put together a mathematician, a physicist, and a biologist in a room and great things will happen.
We are scientists. Scientists base their decisions on scientific evidence not on speculation and wishful thinking. There's no evidence that "innovation" (whatever that is) is stimulated by forcing scientists from disparate disciplines to work together. In fact, I suspect this is counter-productive. If the collaborations don't form naturally then rigging the system to make this happen is probably going to produce less, not more, knowledge.

If Alain Beaudet were correct, then there should be dozens of biologists at the Large Haldron Collider in Geneva, and dozens of biochemists helping geologists with their field work. If he were correct, then one of the largest such groups, the ENCODE Consortium, should have been churning out new knowledge but, instead, their publications have impeded our understanding of the human genome because the bioinformatics experts don't understand biology.
We are also moving toward research that is more and more focused on problems rather than focused on a discipline. We used to do research in physiology or in anatomy or in biochemistry. Today, we are doing research on preventing lung diseases, or treating chronic heart disease. Researchers are now thinking of the impact of their research from the get-go.
This is a problem ... not a feature. Yes, it's true that many of my colleagues are thinking about "impact" far more than they used to. That's because their basic research questions are not going to be funded under the new rules. They have no choice.

I don't think this is wise but the leaders at CIHR just went ahead under the assumption that destroying basic curiosity-motivated research is a good thing.

The problem isn't so much whether Alain Beaudet is right but whether, as scientists, we should be making decisions without considering all the evidence and all the implications. Most of us have very little confidence in the CIHR leadership. We don't think their decisions were informed. We can respect informed decisions that disagree with our own views but only if they are based on evidence and sound reasoning.

None of the recent decisions by CIHR deserve respect. The leaders don't deserve respect.
It is important to encourage partnerships at all levels and this applies to international partnerships as well. When we tap the talent of two countries instead of one, we have a better selection of brains to start with and it is always better to have more brains! Working with another country can offer new ideas and a different cultural approach, which is very important for creativity and innovation.
There's no evidence that collaborators from different countries are more creative than collaborators from within the same country. This is just silly rhetoric. It's the sort of thing a politician might say but not a scientist.
Q: Looking to the future, what change would you like to see in the realm of health research funding?

We must allow freedom for creativity, and this is what we are doing with our new approach to funding investigator-initiated research. We should increase that freedom and take more risks. Traditionally, I think we have been a bit like an old investor: very prudent. We invest in “blue chip stocks” but we do not invest in the daring little tech company… a company that might fail. However, if that company does not fail – if it succeeds, we are going to see a huge return on investment.
What does this mean? Taken at face value, it might mean more support for basic, curiosity-motivated research on the grounds that there might be a big payoff of knowledge in the future. But that's not CIHR policy. The current policy is to allow "freedom for creativity" by shoehorning basic researchers into groups working on medically relevant problems and making them re-write their grant applications to focus on the problems that CIHR has decided are worthy of funding.1

It's one thing to create a policy that I don't like, but to pretend that it's something else is worse. I could respect a President who believed in something and stood up and defended it. I could respect a President who admits that things didn't work out as planned and promised to do better. I could respect a President who listens to other points of view and understands them—even if he disagrees.

Alain Beaudet is not that kind of CIHR President. He should resign and make way for a President who will listen to the research community.

1. Universities have been co-opted into supporting this scheme [In defense of curiosity-motivated research ].


  1. A lot of this sounds very familiar. I've long been a fan of collaboration when it springs from individual scientists' desire to collaborate with others of their choice. In my experience that works very well. What does not work well is collaboration imposed from administrators on high because "collaboration is good". European science has long been plagued by projects that require collaboration between a disparate group of people, preferably (or in some cases compulsorily) situated in different European countries. I've never seen any reason to believe that works better than letting scientists follow their own instincts. Fred Sanger wouldn't have complete either of his sequencing projects if he'd had a dean telling him that his grants weren't big enough and his projects were too unlikely to succeed.

  2. This downward spiral has been going on for some time. I wrote about it myself about 2 and half years ago:

  3. There seems to be a typo-
    “None of the recent decisions by CIHR don’t deserve respect.”

    The decisions don’t deserve respect. It sounds like the politicians involved should do the right thing and replace the guy who is messing things up.

  4. Long, long, ago in a distant galaxy,
    The Canadian Association for Responsible Research,
    Made the case that Feds should relaxy
    Their stranglehold, so we no more lurch,
    With stop-go funds for curios'ty.
    'Twould have helped us Big Pharma to parry,
    Had we had support from Larry!
    For more on the course we tried to steer,
    Move your pointer and Click Here.

  5. "dozens of biochemists helping geologists with their field work"

    Well, as it happens there are projects in which this is going to take place. There's an interesting question which requires cooperation between biochemists, paleontologists, neontologists and geochemists in that we know very little about the taphonomy and more crucially the diagenesis of biogenic macromolecules.

  6. On 11/25/15, you posted an article suggesting that Dr. Beaudet be relieved of his duties at CIHR. At that time, I posed a question as to why he was not so relieved upon the change of government to which you responded that this has not been the practice in Canada previously. In the US, the federal government is essentially divided into two categories, political appointees and civil servants. The resignation of the former are usually requested upon the change of administration while the latter continue on. The positions occupied by the former are listed in a publication, known colloquially as the Plum Book (as I recall, there are about 1800 such positions). Apparently in Canada, from your response, it appears that there are no political appointments except for the MPs who fill the top jobs analogous to US cabinet secretary positions. Is this an accurate appraisal of the situation?

    1. There are some minor exceptions but that's a pretty accurate appraisal. Canada follows the British tradition of having a neutral professional civil service that serves whoever is in power. I think this is more common than the American tradition of making political appointments.

  7. Basically agree with you right down the line, except the problem with ENCODE was a problem of not having outside expertise, i.e. biologists, to work with the bioinformaticists.
    Also, I think much of these problems are due to a problem of conflating science with engineering. Yes there is significant overlap, but when you consider science as simply providing a solution to a problem, such as how to efficiently get across a river - a bridge!, then new knowledge and understanding is no longer a useful endeavor. The idea of science being engineering is one I think is endemic in the lay population and politicians. Politicians, of some stripes, also have the problem of thinking of everything in business terms and being motivated by financial profit.

  8. How many grants have you applied for Dr. Moran?

    Let's see if your requests are viable? Bring it on!

    I have a feeling that you have applied for maany, many grants to scientifically test junk DNA and prove the ENCODe wrong, and the random genetic drift as the main force behind evolution. Fill us in on the details please!

    1. I believe that I recall that Prof. Moran stated some time ago on this blog that he was no longer active in research. In which case your comment is irrelevant.

    2. You seem to miss the part where even ENCODE has admitted that ENCODE was wrong.

      The evidence for junk DNA abounds, and ENCODE did nothing to change this.

    3. "I have a feeling that you have applied for maany, many grants to scientifically test junk DNA and prove the ENCODe wrong"

      Cool story bro. Reality isn't dictated by your feelings.