Bioethics Blogs

Whither Peer Review at CIHR

Matthew Herder reviews three significant problems with the peer review system at CIHR, as a result of which high-quality research by social science and humanities researchers is left ‘undone.’


There are many problems with the current peer review system managed by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) – Canada’s federal funding agency for health-related research. Three discrete problems, however, merit special attention given their relevance to proposed reforms to CIHR’s investigator-initiated research programs.

Failure to address these problems will exacerbate the challenges that researchers in the social sciences and humanities already face when applying for funding from CIHR. It will also mean that CIHR continues to spend (at least some of its) health research dollars in a less than efficient and effective manner. Consider the following scenarios:

Whence and Whither? (Circa 1932) by Cyril Edward Power. Image Credit: The Wolfsonian–Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Scenario 1: A team of anthropologists applies for CIHR funding to study the development of vaccines using ‘actor network theory.’ The grant is rejected because the reviewers are baffled as to why the researchers need ‘actors’ to carry out their research.

Actor network theory is a legitimate approach to social theory and research, yet the reviewers believed the applicants proposed to hire thespians as part of their grant. While the evidence is anecdotal, scholars in the social sciences and humanities frequently report receiving rejection letters from CIHR that unequivocally betray the peer reviewers’ lack of understanding of the applicants’ fields of research.

Part of the problem in providing appropriate peer review at CIHR is that the pool of potential reviewers with training in the social sciences and humanities as applied to the field of health is fairly small.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.