IMPACT OF CIHR REFORMS AND FUNDING ON CANADIAN HEALTH RESEARCHERS: IMPLICATIONS FOR SUSTAINABILITY OF HEALTH RESEARCH IN CANADA

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By Liisa Galea, Ph.D., Distinguished University Professor, University of British Columbia with help from Stephane Dragon, UBC

In the summer of 2016 we conducted a survey1 with responses from 426 verified professors across Canada representing all provinces and territories except for Nunavut on the impact of the CIHR funding changes over the past 5 years (2009-2016). There are 2395 unique principal investigators (PI)s funded by CIHR’s largest granting programs over the past 5 years, this indicates that 15-20% of the funded PIs from CIHR completed the survey. What we found was alarming and devastating to the scientific community in Canada which will have significant repercussions on our country’s stature on the world stage.

Job losses: Our survey indicated that 350 highly qualified personnel (HQP) jobs had already been terminated as of 2016. Extrapolating this number suggests that approximately 1940 HQP have been let go over the last year. This is likely to be an underestimate as over the past 10 years there have been 3913 unique PIs over the past 10 years, indicating an attrition rate of approximately 40% of professors funded by CIHR within the last 5 years2.  A rough estimate suggests that each biomedical grant is associated with approximately 7.93 trainees, suggesting an overall loss of closer to 5000 HQP jobs.

Trainees: Our survey indicated that our 426 PIs were training 2600 trainees (undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral fellows).  Our survey data suggests an average rate of average of 6 trainees per PI.  This is very similar to the rate as reported by CIHR with higher number of trainees reported per biomedical grants3.  Furthermore, shockingly 70% of respondents indicating they were avoiding and postponing taking on trainees indicating that these traditional numbers of graduate and post-graduate students will be significantly reduced over the next few years. It is important to understand that many of these trainees, particularly in health research, go onto become MDs, and/or into research roles in private industry. This will mean a significant loss to the talent pool for these areas over the next few years in Canada.

Money for Research: Shockingly, our survey of 426 PIs indicated that total budgets had decreased overall with a net loss of $8M over the time period from 2009-2016. It is important to be aware that since the survey was conducted there have been only two open competitions from CIHR for the year following the survey, indicating more monies lost due to fewer opportunities for funding.

Impactful Research:  By their own account, over 70% of PIs are indicating they are delaying impactful work with the same percentage of PIs scaling down their research programs.  This will already have significant outcomes for Canadian science standing on the world stage.

Leaving Canadian Research: Approximately 40% of researchers across the board were considering leaving their research careers. Over 50% of the senior respondents indicated they were considering retiring earlier and over 40% of mid-career scientists were considering leaving Canada.  Clearly this level of disengagement is a concern for the wellbeing of health research within Canada.

We also asked the respondents to identify their “greatest impediment to performing the best research you can.”  This open ended question was answered by 93% of the respondents.  Collectively this group identified three major themes with Funding Issues (levels, opportunities, amounts) as the number 1 major impediment to doing excellent research and 89% of the population cited Funding Issues as the most salient impediment. Issues with Funding extended to issues for finding, attracting and retaining HQP.

Finally, I would add that many of our respondents identified that a lack of funding for open-ended research (investigator-driven) was a part of funding issues and I note that this survey was conducted almost a year before the Fundamental Science Review was published.  Funding all pillars of CIHR, and diversity matters as a number of studies have indicated that a broad and diverse portfolio is needed in order to maximize taxpayer investment5.

References

A few selected quotes from researchers themselves:

 

“At this time it is the uncertain funding environment that is severely limiting my research program. I am not able to invest in new students given the poor funding climate and despite being recruited to Canada as a CRC (from the US) I am seriously considering returning to the states…” Respondent 5

“…In my field, if I cannot obtain funds to hire students or the reagents for experiments, even a loss of one year’s funding, my research will be at a great disadvantage to my fellow researchers/competitors in other countries…” Respondent 14

 “…An unfunded period brings an absolute end to continuity.  Every lab has unique procedures, research topics and necessary background knowledge that are not immediately acquired by new lab members simply by showing up in the lab on their first day of work.  Losing funding for six months doesn’t mean simply a six-month break in research; it can take many years to restore group expertise and knowledge to a lab.  I am worried that the current funding situation is going to create this situation en masse for researchers all across Canada.  Even a short interruption can set research back by many years.” Respondent 28

“…The frequent rolling out of narrowly focused research programs has made it difficult to keep up with opportunities (as a consequence I am sure the very best people are not carrying out research in the calls for applications).” Respondent 34

“CIHR is operating on 2006 dollars when inflation for science has been increasing at 5%/pa. CFI funding has increased our capacity to do better science but a lack of funds prevents us from using these resources that often sit idle in the labs across the country. The only problem is lack of funding. New procedures for funding is only re-arranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic” Respondent 147

“Lack of funding and unpredictability of renewal means I cannot make firm offers to prospective trainees, meaning that I am unable to maintain continuity of research programs” Respondent 156

“…, if the CIHR funding climate does not dramatically improve then I am not confident that I will be able to continue conducting research in Canada. For this reason, I am considering leaving Canada within the next 2 years, an am already actively looking at other positions.” Respondent 161

“…Limited future for graduate students in Canada. I can’t in good conscience continue training students ….” Respondent 164

“Lack of funding and unpredictability of renewal means I cannot make firm offers to prospective trainees, meaning that I am unable to maintain continuity of research programs” Respondent 156