Professor of medicine. PhD in human factors engineering. Living with type 1 diabetes. Infrequent blogger.

My response to the anonymous Foundation letter

Like others in Canadian health research, last week, I received an anonymous invitation to fill out a google form to sign a letter to the president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). The letter recommends that the president reconsider the recent decision to shutter a particular grant program, which awarded larger, longer grants to a subgroup of researchers, including me. In the interests of transparency, I am sharing my response publicly.


Thank you very kindly for the invitation to sign this letter. I assume I received the invitation because I hold a Foundation grant. However, even if I fully agreed with the contents of the letter, I cannot ethically sign my name to an anonymous letter. This type of policy recommendation, while not a scientific manuscript, is still a scholarly document. An anonymous document of this nature violates core academic principles of transparency and accountability.

I agree with some of your arguments. For example, I agree with your concerns about ensuring funds remain in open programs. I can also understand concerns you might have about why the CIHR struck a committee to make recommendations on the Foundation program, only to then seemingly ignore the committee’s report. I found this puzzling, too.

However, other arguments you make demonstrate a lack of understanding of the mandate of CIHR. You may wish to review the CIHR Act, especially 4(d)(ii) and 4(e). By federal law, CIHR is required to fund far more than biomedical research. Your letter refers to Canada’s, “brightest and most accomplished biomedical researchers,” which means that if you are correct that there exists a subgroup of researchers who are indeed “brighte[r]” and more “accomplished,” than their peers, your description of this group fails to include researchers in three of four CIHR pillars.

Additionally, your recommendation that Foundation 2.0 applications be, “reviewed by existing panels with expertise matched to the applicant,” naively ignores the long-standing issue of scoring variation between panels. When 80% of open operating funds were allocated evenly across panels while the other 20% were reserved for the top-scoring grants, specific panels’ scores ratcheted up and those panels’ areas of research got a larger share of the 20%. This is exactly what would occur again if different panels gave numerical scores to Foundation 2.0 applications.

I fully support your goal of making the most efficient use of researchers and reviewers’ time and maximizing return on public investment. However, your letter fails to provide any evidence in support of its assertion that your proposal would achieve this goal. The claim of the, “proven successful track record of high prestige grant schemes in the US and Europe such as those mentioned above,” offers no details to allow a reader to assess the veracity of the claim, not even the names of specific programs, let alone any evidence of their, “proven successful track record.”

In contrast, from what I have read in the peer-reviewed literature, the available evidence thus far suggests that increasing concentration of research funding is associated with decreasing marginal returns. I base this assessment on moderate to large studies conducted with data from the United States [1,2], China [3], the United Kingdom [4], Canada [5], and other countries. As you may already be aware, New Zealand’s randomized funding allocation program is underway and data about outputs will be collected in 2020. [6] Those data should offer further insight on the effects of federal research funding on knowledge production and, hopefully, health system impact. I will add here that it has been shown that the entrenched influence of high-profile individuals appears to actually impede scientific progress in a field [7], which suggests that, for the sake of science, it is important to avoid contributing to such entrenchment.

If you’re aware of hard data in support of a Foundation-type program, I would encourage you to please cite it in your letter, as that would be important evidence to consider in this policy discussion, in which I hope we are all putting our own career interests aside and focusing on what is best for Canadians and others who fund health research in Canada. Similarly, if you have robust evidence that recruitment to Canada is improved by the existence of a Foundation-like program and that such recruitment has observably positive effects on Canadian health research (rather than simply removing scarce funding from equally-capable health researchers who are already here) it would be of great interest to CIHR and to the broader health research community.

I note here that I could personally support a carefully designed—and very carefully implemented—grants consolidation program that would allow principal applicants who hold 2 or more CIHR grants to trade off a percentage of budget in exchange for some extra stability. I have advocated for this in the past—publicly, with my real name, as an assistant professor. The budget-stability tradeoff could be a fair way to help principal investigators spend more time doing science without creating incentives that could harm overall health research impact. Such an approach would not require extra applications or reviews.

In summary, although I share some of your goals and, as an awardee, am myself quite fond of the Foundation grant program, I cannot sign your letter.

Although I don’t support the specific recommendations you articulate in your letter, I sincerely wish you all the best in achieving your scientific goals and broader policy goals.

Yours very cordially,
Holly Witteman

1. Berg JM. Science policy: Well-funded investigators should receive extra scrutiny. Nature. 2012;489(7415):203.
2. Lorsch JR. Maximizing the return on taxpayers’ investments in fundamental biomedical research. Mol Biol Cell. 2015;26(9):1578-1582.
3. Yin Z, Liang Z, Zhi Q. Does the concentration of scientific research funding in institutions promote knowledge output? J Informetr. 2018;12(4):1146-1159.
4. Cook I, Grange S, Eyre-Walker A. Research groups: How big should they be? PeerJ. 2015;3:e989.
5. Mongeon P, Brodeur C, Beaudry C, Larivière V. Concentration of research funding leads to decreasing marginal returns. Res Eval. 2016;25(4):396-404.
6. Barnett AG, Graves N, Clarke P, Blakely T. What is the impact of research funding on research productivity? 2015.
7. Azoulay P, Fons-Rosen C, Graff Zivin JS. Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time? Am Econ Rev. doi:10.1257/aer.20161574

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *