Canada’s CIHR Called On to Step-Up to Fund Basic & Applied Health Research – New Knowledge & IP is Essential

May 13, 2020
By Noel Courage

CIHR has shown leadership in COVID-19 health research, for example, through launching special, rapid response grant funding for COVID-19 research in February and April 2020.  There is an opportunity for CIHR to further broaden its leadership and its impact on health research by reinstating its cancelled Spring 2020 Project Grant competition for all areas of health research. A path forward is summarized here, in a piece by Dr. Jim Woodgett. 

It is good to periodically review CIHR’s mandate by law to support creation and dissemination of new health knowledge. The objectives of CIHR are stated in the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Act1 as follows:


s.4 The objective of the CIHR is to excel, according to internationally accepted standards of scientific excellence, in the creation of new knowledge and its translation into improved health for Canadians, more effective health services and products and a strengthened Canadian health care system, by:

  • (a) exercising leadership within the Canadian research community and fostering collaboration with the provinces and with individuals and organizations in or outside Canada that have an interest in health or health research;
  • (b) creating a robust health research environment in Canada, based on internationally accepted standards of scientific excellence and a peer review process, that will attract, develop and keep excellent researchers and provide them with the opportunity to contribute to the improvement of people’s health in Canada and the world;
  • (c) forging an integrated health research agenda across disciplines, sectors and regions that reflects the emerging health needs of Canadians and the evolution of the health system and supports health policy decision-making;
  • (d) encouraging interdisciplinary, integrative health research through the creation of Health Research Institutes that:
    • (i) together pertain to all aspects of health,
    • (ii) include bio-medical research, clinical research, research respecting health systems, health services, the health of populations, societal and cultural dimensions of health and environmental influences on health, and other research as required,
    • (iii) work in collaboration with the provinces to advance health research and to promote the dissemination and application of new research knowledge to improve health and health services, and
    • (iv) engage voluntary organizations, the private sector and others, in or outside Canada, with complementary research interests;
  • (e) promoting, assisting and undertaking research that meets the highest international scientific standards of excellence and ethics and that pertains to all aspects of health, including bio-medical research, clinical research and research respecting health systems, health services, the health of populations, societal and cultural dimensions of health and environmental influences on health;
  • (f) addressing emerging health opportunities, threats and challenges and accelerating the discovery of cures and treatments and improvements to health care, prevention and wellness strategies;
  • (g) fostering the discussion of ethical issues and the application of ethical principles to health research;
  • (h) promoting the dissemination of knowledge and the application of health research to improve the health of Canadians;
  • (i) encouraging innovation, facilitating the commercialization of health research in Canada and promoting economic development through health research in Canada;
  • (j) building the capacity of the Canadian health research community through the development of researchers and the provision of sustained support for scientific careers in health research;
  • (k) pursuing opportunities and providing support for the participation of Canadian scientists in international collaboration and partnerships in health research; and
  • (l) ensuring transparency and accountability to Canadians for the investment of the Government of Canada in health research. [Emphasis added]

One of the stated objectives is emerging health threats and challenges, and COVID-19 research funding clearly fits that objective. CIHR can choose how to focus on its objectives, but the other objectives must also remain a high priority in the pandemic. CIHR’s support is needed more than ever, as the pandemic disrupts lab work and causes funding to dry up from industry and charitable foundations. The current challenges for medical research are stark, and some of them are briefly described in my earlier article, “Keep the Bright Lights of Medical Research On!” CIHR-funded research generates important basic science. In some cases, it also generates IP, spins-off jobs and companies, produces healthcare products and attracts follow-on funding, in a win-win for everyone from the lab bench to the person on the street. Even though the challenges faced by researchers pile-up, they are ready to pick up the pieces and move forward ASAP – funding remains essential in order to resume research. 

Diabetes Canada has cancelled its 2020 research competition due in part to “significant financial constraints.” The Canadian Cancer Society has postponed, not cancelled, its Impact Grant competition. If there is insufficient funding available, then cancellation may be the only option for a grant competition. Jim Woodgett’s math indicates that there should still be CIHR funding available to restart the Spring Grant competition (provided that the funding has not been reallocated). Where there is funding available, and a will, then there should be a way. CIHR has shown great flexibility by providing rapid response funding for COVID-19 research. It is not too late for CIHR to flex again and step-up for the rest of medical research by shifting from cancellation to (brief) postponement of the Spring grant competition. CIHR should focus on doing its very best to fulfil its statutory objectives in this difficult time, and publicly communicate with stakeholders regularly on the path forward.

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