Ottawa cuts funding for health research

Sep 18, 2003, vol. 28, no. 2
By Carol Thorbes

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Researchers will feel the impact of financial belt tightening at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the federal government's premier vehicle for funding university-based health-related research.

But there may be a silver lining in the council's newfound frugality says SFU molecular biologist Bruce Brandhorst.

(He is also the university's CIHR delegate and the associate director of basic biomedical and clinical health research at SFU's institute of health research and education.)

As of this fall, CIHR has suspended seven of its grant competitions. Current awards in suspended competitions will be funded until their terms finish.

With a change of leadership looming in the governing federal Liberal Party, the CIHR has no guarantees that it will continue to receive funding at its current level.

Most of the increases in its federal funding over the last three years have gone into fulfilling ongoing multi-year grants and there has been little real extra money to maintain new grants. The CIHR is now budgeting more cautiously.

Among the programs impacted are special projects, senior research fellowships, genomics research, and senior and distinguished investigators.

CIHR is making new and renewing operating grants its top funding priority, but as of this fall their funding will likely be only 75 per cent of 2002 funding.

“Applicants for all programs should anticipate that the number of grants and awards available will be lower than in recent years,” states a CIHR release.

“I suspect the smaller and comprehensive universities will take a relatively bigger hit,” observes Brandhorst.

“But some changes might help, such as limiting any applicant to a single application per cycle. Some applicants now apply for and get more than one grant per competition. It is not clear that is the most efficient way to use funds.”

The CIHR has been good to SFU. Since 1999, when it replaced the Medical Research Council (MRC) and started funding a broader range of health-related research than its predecessor, CIHR applications from SFU researchers have steadily increased. They've gone from about seven MRC applications annually to about 23 under CIHR.

SFU researchers' success rate in all funding competitions has increased from 22 per cent under MRC to 28 per cent under CIHR.

That has translated into a significant increase in federal support for health related research at SFU - from $478,000 for 12 MRC grants in 1999-00 to about $2 million for 26 CIHR grants in 2002-03.

“Perhaps the only sour note in this success story,” says CIHR VP-research Mark Bisby, “is that SFU researchers fare below the national average success rate in CIHR's open operating grants competition, with a historic success rate of 22 per cent compared to 31 per cent nationally.”

“Given the much heavier teaching and related responsibilities compared to people working at research hospitals and medical schools, and the lack of some critical infrastructure, it is remarkable that applicants at SFU and other comprehensive universities fare as well as they do,” says Brandhorst.

“CIHR's competitions are tough for all applicants, way tougher than for Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council grants (NSERC), where the success rate is 80 per cent and approaches 95 per cent for some disciplines.”

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