CIHR cutting programs and research grants in the face of looming budget crunch

Guest Contributor
September 16, 2003

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) has a cash flow problem that’s severely constraining its ability to fund new research projects. The funding crunch has compelled the organization to cut 5% from ongoing research grants starting in FY04-05 and defer payments to researchers who have significant unspent balances in their accounts at fiscal year end.

Further cost-cutting measures include suspending a program supporting senior research fellows, limiting new operating grant applications to one per principal investigator, and suspending new awards under the investigator, senior investigator and distinguished investigator programs.

The harsh measures highlight the difficulties CIHR is facing under its current funding arrangement. Its president, Dr Alan Bernstein, hopes that by highlighting the problem now it can be addressed during the transition currently underway in the federal government before it becomes worse. At the heart of the dilemma is the inadequate amount of funding available to support new research projects. This FY, there was $171 million in uncommitted funds up for grabs. Beginning with this fall’s competition, uncommitted funding for next year will be just $100 million. That amount would have been even smaller had CIHR’s governing council not implemented certain “cash management strategies”. Compounding the problem is an explosion in the number of new applications CIHR is receiving.

“The number of unfunded grants because of the lack of funds has tripled this year. Our mandate covers everything, so that medical and biomedical applications are being joined by other disciplines,” says Bernstein, adding that funding of health research by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and the Canada Research Chairs program has dramatically increased pressure on scarce resources. “They all turn around and apply for an operating grant from us.”

In a very real sense, CIHR’s current problems are a result of the organization’s astounding success in securing successive budget increases since its formation. But funding for new grants is made available from lapsed projects and new budget increases. Most projects now coming to an end were initiated under the previous Medical Research Council, when there was a funding base of less than half of what CIHR now receives. And the government has provided no assurances that there will be a budget increase for FY04-05.

Bernstein is in discussions with government officials to find an impasse to the current budget bottleneck. He says the government must recognize and correct the disconnect between CIHR funding of projects over a multi-year period and current regulations which prohibit funds from being carried over from year to year. Part of the solution is a change in the rules allowing between 5% and 10% of CIHR’s budget to be carried over each year.

“There are essentially two ways to fund science in Canada and they’re both extreme. You have organizations like the CFI which is an arm’s length foundation funded with year-end surpluses. The other extreme is the three granting councils which have to spend their money by March 31st or we lose it,” says Bernstein. “Since 1997 we’ve seen a sea change in levels of support for research. It’s amazing. But now it’s appropriate to look at the mechanisms of funding.”


Bernstein says it’s critical that Canada stay ahead of the curve in the research niches it targets, both for the benefit of Canadians and CIHR’s stature in the international research community. Bernstein’s contention that “the world is watching” is reinforced by Dr Elias Zerhouni, director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“Policies in hand have really evolved to the point where Canada is positioning itself (globally),” he says. “CIHR has a new vision — its Blueprint — with priorities in many areas parallel to those we’ve developed (see article on page 5). It opens up new areas of collaboration.”

CIHR and NIH recently agreed to launch three collaborative research programs in the areas of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Each program will be conducted at multiple sites in the US and Canada.

“Common program announcements are pending that will identify the best areas for collaboration,” says Zerhouni.


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