Double Nickels on the Dime: An Oral History of the Foundation Grants Program

This is a long-ish post summarizing my perspective on the implementation and effects (so far) of CIHR’s Foundation Grant program. I know this program is defensible from some points of view. I’m not trying to speak for anyone but myself. My main points are these:

  1. A grant consolidation program is a good idea under some conditions. But Foundation is not a consolidation program, and we can’t afford it at any scale under the current circumstances. The opportunity costs are too high.
  2. CIHR should stop Foundation, wind down current grants, and re-allocate as much funding as possible to Project Grants, with a target of 20% success rates as the number one priority of the agency. Project provides the broadest support to the most people. It is the best way to invest in the future of Canadian health research. It matters more — and is a better way to fulfill CIHR’s mandate — than Foundation or most strategic programs. If the Project Grants program is not robust and healthy, CIHR is a failure.
  3. If 20% success rates can be maintained, a true consolidation program should be considered, with strict controls on eligibility and budget.

Alain the farmer has 10 pigs and 4 buckets of slop per day to feed them. [Bear with me.] He notices two of the pigs — his two favorite pigs, in fact, pigs he knows are of the highest quality — tend to get a bit more slop than the others. They are good at competing for a spot at the trough, and they are good eaters! He’s had them the longest, and they have more meat on them than the others. So he thinks, “If I give those two even more slop, I’ll have the two most excellent pigs in the county, and I’ll make a killing on market day.”

So he splits his single pig pen into two. He puts 8 of the pigs in one pen and feeds them 2 slop buckets per day, and puts the 2 excellent pigs in another and gives them each their own bucket.

The 2 super-pigs grow faster, but not all that much faster. Often they leave uneaten slop on the floor of their pen. Even a pig can only eat so much, and they can only grow so fast. Meanwhile, the 8 other pigs stop growing. Most of them lose weight. Competition at the trough gets ugly. A few get sick. One of the younger pigs dies.

On market day, he does indeed make way more than average on his two super-pigs, who are nicely fattened and beautiful to behold. No one can deny their porcine excellence, as determined by stringent, objective, expert pig review. One of them even wins a blue ribbon and gets its picture in the newspaper with the Minister of Agriculture! But his 8 other pigs (sorry, now 7) are worth far less than average. Overall, it’s a large net loss.

The farmer could learn something about zero-sum resource allocation, diminishing returns, and opportunity costs. Or, he could pretend that winning a ribbon was the goal all along.

A lot is happening at CIHR, now under new (albeit interim) leadership. Most notably, they have returned to face-to-face panels for peer review. I’m not saying it was easy, but this was, politically speaking, low-hanging fruit. We are going back to a peer review system that pretty much worked. But success rates will reach new lows, and fewer labs will be funded than before the Reforms.

Peer review in the Reforms was bad. Some of it was surreal. But the bungled implementation of virtual peer review was not what crippled the system. It was the creation of a funding caste system in which large, long-term Foundation grants are awarded primarily based on seniority and reputation. These grants both enlarge annual budgets and extend funding durations for a small subset of scientists — a subset from which early and mid-career investigators are largely excluded by design.

Reallocating a large proportion of open funds to a small group in Foundation has been paid for so far by cutting the number of normal operating grant competitions in half for 3 years. Because time did not stand still while this happened, it has had predictable effects on stability and application pressure. Each year, many more operating grants are ending than CIHR is awarding, something that was never true before the Reforms. Because the vast majority of PIs in the system have one grant, this means labs are being defunded. People are losing their jobs. Past investment is squandered. As we return (finally, maybe?) to two competitions per year, it will necessitate cutting Project success rates in half. Six of one, half dozen of the other — the effect is the same. The opportunity costs are massive, but have been ignored.

CIHR initially committed 45% of open program funding to Foundation. This was clearly not something they could afford to do while keeping productive labs open and letting new investigators into the system. It was, in fact, an obscene giveaway that was duly taken advantage of with large — and largely approved — budget requests above an already dubiously generous “baseline” calculation. How the 45% allocation and individual budgeting procedures were approved by those charged with oversight of CIHR’s operations is an incomprehensible failure of due diligence that as far as I know remains unquestioned and unexplained.

The various defenses of this at the time were laughable, in a not-funny sort of way. For example, a CIHR executive at the time told me on the phone that they expected ECIs and MCIs to outperform senior scientists in Project, because after all, Foundation was protecting us from having to compete with the scientific crème de la crème as they floated up to unprecedented heights in the funding distribution. At the same time, ironically, CIHR was releasing data showing that, in fact, ECIs and MCIs had generally competed just fine in the OOGP.

As it happened (believe it or not), ECIs and MCIs did not outperform more experienced applicants in the chaotic and confusing Project competitions. Unlike in any competition before, quotas and supplemental funding were needed to ensure that ECIs received something approaching — but still substantially less than — the proportion of open program funding they had received in the OOGP.

MCIs received no such relief nor sympathy. After all, what more natural time to cull the herd — shouldn’t you have to prove yourself? We’re a meritocracy! Never mind that “proving yourself” under today’s crisis conditions bears zero resemblance to proving yourself under the stable formats and 25–30% success rates of the 2000s. It’s always been hard.

So to summarize the Reforms: CIHR took a funding program that was roughly equitable by career stage and split it into two programs that both disfavored early/mid-career applicants, one of them cartoonishly so. All the while, they claimed that life would be good in the Projects, because we were safely protected there from the apex scientists who were now in Foundation, along with half the money.

Alternative take: The ladder is being pulled up on two generations of Canadian scientists.

In the OOGP, about 140 people had the equivalent of 3 or more concurrent grants in annual funding. CIHR was now going to give out about 140 grants larger than that every year while funding the same number of labs. It was truly magical thinking. In fact, as in all zero-sum wealth concentration phenomena, the creation of local luxury and stability would be paid for with global scarcity and instability.

Last year, CIHR finally entered the CHiPs-style 40 car pile-up on the Pacific Coast Highway phase of the Reforms. (This phase was easy to foresee, though it was left off the official transition Gantt charts.) Around this time, it became conventional wisdom that the Foundation program had some “good ideas behind it” but was “unsustainable at its current size.”

So: how much could CIHR afford to allocate to a <ahem> “pilot” program like Foundation?

The answer 4 years ago was probably something like 10%, assuming they were able to keep budgets under control, which they can’t seem to do. The answer today is unequivocally 0%. This is an agency overextended in every sense and still mired in operational issues. The damage done by the Reforms cannot be addressed by returning to face-to-face panels and fiddling around the edges of budget allocations.

Why bring all this up? Why relitigate the Reforms when we have to look ahead?

Because it is clear that there is still no will to even temporarily suspend the Foundation program, let alone do the needful and cancel it. The fact that the people charged with getting CIHR back on the right track — and given enormous authority to do so — are still thinking that a program like Foundation has any place at all in what we are all hoping will be CIHR’s recovery should be unsettling. It suggests that they share a core belief of previous leadership: that there is a subset of senior PIs who should be protected at any cost from the current funding climate.

Do you “like the idea” of a “Foundation-type program?” I do. Especially when we phrase it in this exquisitely hedged and vague manner. I think we all like the idea, in isolation, in principle. So what? I “like the idea” of a lot of things we can’t afford or that have unintended consequences where harms outweigh benefits. Again and again, the appeal and reasonableness of the “idea” of a Foundation-like program has been weaponized against us and used to justify this specific program at this specific time, which is poorly-conceived and is doing enormous damage. The recent CIHR road show is indistinguishable from the Reforms marketing blitz on this topic. Don’t you think [Famous Scientist] deserves it? Don’t you like excellence? Well, Foundation is about excellence, chum. Case closed.

If success rates stabilized in Project at an acceptable level, I would welcome a “Foundation-like” program that would give people who have a sustained track record of high productivity some extra freedom from the grant treadmill. My idea in a nutshell: if you have 3 or more concurrent grants that have been successfully renewed, you can consolidate them. This can only happen when Project success rates are above 20%.

And, indeed, that is exactly what should be the primary goal for CIHR: get Project Grant success rates up to and sustained at 20% or higher so that we can have a functional, healthy, future-oriented funding system. Here is how:

  1. Stop the Foundation program. Start winding down current Foundation grants now. Revisit consolidation when Project success rates are 20%.
  2. Put 70% of the CIHR budget into Project. This will require cutting strategic programs and non-operating grant spending significantly.
  3. Do everything possible to #SupporttheReport. Even with the above, 20% success rates in Project will require the full Naylor ask.

I know influential people want these grants. Who wouldn’t? I know there is significant support for continuing Foundation. But I would hope there is even more support for the research community all being in this together, for not pulling up the ladder, for not eating our young, and for building research capacity and sustaining research careers. These, by the way, are things that are required by the CIHR Act. They cannot be accomplished with 10% success rates in Project. Prestige-based glamour grants to a small tier of scientists are, funnily enough, not mentioned in the CIHR Act.

The CIHR Reforms were an extraordinary failure that has done extraordinary damage. Damage that is now chronic, no matter how you review the grants. It is always tempting to deploy half measures, to split the difference on hard choices. That’s not good enough. Extraordinary measures are needed to restore CIHR. Stopping Foundation isn’t even the extraordinary step — it’s the easiest one on the table. If we can’t get that done, I have little hope for CIHR as an agency that can support a bright future for Canadian health research.



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