What does responsive and responsible research funding mean during – and after – a pandemic?

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As BC's health research funding agency, we think deeply about how to grow, improve and best support BC health research. Since our first Forward Thinking post, we’ve shared a series of blogs on health research funding and 'helping-it-happen'. In this post, MSFHR's President & CEO Dr. Bev Holmes writes about the need for funders to adapt to the current reality brought on by COVID-19, and welcomes MSFHR's new Vice President Research Dr. Chonnettia Jones, a leader with the expertise and background to help us navigate this new reality.

Forward Thinking is MSFHR's blog focusing on what it takes to be a responsive and responsible research funder.


We launched our Forward Thinking blog series two years ago to stimulate dialogue on responsive and responsible research funding. With the arrival of COVID-19, that dialogue is suddenly very different. Along with virtually all sectors around the world, research funders are rethinking the assumptions behind their work, and adapting to serve their communities during a difficult time. At MSFHR, we are looking at both short-and long-term implications of COVID-19 and how we can address them.

  • Now: as BC’s health research funder and with the support of government, we have a responsibility to support COVID-19 research of strategic importance to the province. We also have a responsibility – to our award-holders, applicants and peer reviewers – to demonstrate flexibility given the effects of the pandemic on their work.
  • For the future: MSFHR's core mandate is health research talent development. And in light of the pandemic, we’re concerned. We have a responsibility to understand the long term implications of COVID-19 on BC’s health research enterprise, and be part of a collective effort to build resilience in the system.

Now…

At the request of the BC Ministry of Health (MoH), we’re helping to coordinate BC’s response to COVID-19. We’re supporting the recently formed BC COVID-19 Strategic Research Advisory Committee (SRAC), whose deliverables – chief among them a framework to help identify ongoing research needs – will inform the Province’s actions as well as those of the BC research community. The committee will require feedback from a range of stakeholders, a variety of inputs, and the efforts of organizations across the province in order to do its work.

Additionally, with $2 million from MoH we have established the MSFHR COVID-19 Research Response Fund. On April 6, we launched our first call and will award grants in five topic areas over the coming weeks. We’re delighted that the BC Academic Health Science Network and Population Data BC have joined us as partners, offering resources to funded teams engaging patients and the public, and supporting projects that require the use of health data.  Further funding mechanisms – which may include more competitions and match-funding with other provincial and national funders – will be informed by SRAC’s research framework.

Finally in the “now,” we’re listening to you: our awardees and supervisors, applicants, peer reviewers, research administrators and partners, who are raising important questions about grants, our planned and future competitions and more. You need clarification on no-cost extensions, eligible expenses, and conditions of award given the impacts of the pandemic on your work. We’re addressing these questions as they arise and, where it is in our control to make a change, we are doing so and communicating it back to you. Some of your questions require input from our partner institutions about their changing plans and policies and we are working with them to get the answers you need. Rest assured that we recognize the upheaval and uncertainty caused by the pandemic, and our intent is to support you as best possible.

For the future…

We have a fairly clear – but still emerging – sense of the funding competition-related decisions on the immediate horizon.  What's less clear, and very concerning, are the implications of COVID-19 on BC's health researchers and our health research system in the longer term.

What happens when “everything but COVID-19 research” is put on hold, as is the case in many universities around the world?  Does that seemingly strict requirement inadvertently exclude existing studies that could help minimize the effects of the pandemic and future emergencies on individuals, communities and the health system?  What happens to trainees whose careers and contributions rely on research that is now uncertain, to established researchers depending on grants from now-cancelled competitions, to infrastructure that lays dormant and will not be easily restarted when the pandemic ends? In short, what will happen to the advancement of knowledge in all other areas of health research?

COVID-19 will test the robustness of our research system. And while focussing resources and attention on the current pandemic is of utmost importance, so is understanding the longer term. My team and I are privileged to work with a Board of Directors that is challenging us to see the bigger picture and consider, with the advice of our Research Leaders Forum and input from the community, how MSFHR can help. Conversations with our funding agency partners at the provincial and national levels, who are equally concerned about the long term impact of the current situation, will help us collectively strengthen our support for the research community now and in the future. We’ll be reaching out to you in the coming weeks to get your thoughts on this work.

Welcome to our new VP Research

It took two separate periods of self-isolation between London, England and Vancouver, via San Francisco, but MSFHR's new Vice President Research Dr. Chonnettia Jones has finally arrived and started work with us last week.

A geneticist and developmental neurobiologist, Chonnettia brings deep funding agency expertise and experience to MSFHR. She’s held senior roles at Howard Hughes Medical Institute and most recently at UK’s Wellcome Trust, where I met her several years ago. Her commitment to responsive and responsible research funding led to the establishment of the Research on Research Institute, in which MSFHR and many other funders around the world are partnering.

Chonnettia’s arrival coincides with the implementation of MSFHR's new strategic plan, with its focus on talent development, provincial health research capacity building, and BC-specific health priorities. It also coincides with an international health crisis – but like us, Chonnettia sees the opportunity to adapt our plan accordingly, to meet BC’s research system needs into the future.

We look forward to introducing you to Chonnettia, albeit virtually, in the coming weeks, and to collectively understanding our new reality and taking helpful and supportive action.