This month, the Medical Research Council (MRC) of Canada will be replaced by a new organization, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). In addition to supporting all of the MRC's current commitments, the CIHR has a mandate to improve the international competitiveness of Canada by substantially increasing overall grant funding and by establishing a virtual network of medical researchers.

At current funding levels, Canadian laboratories struggle to attract the best young scientists. The newly appointed president of the CIHR, Alan Bernstein, recalls one case in particular. "Recently, when I was at the Lunenfeld [Research Institute], we were recruiting an originally Canadian researcher working out of the U.S. She had seven offers and two were from Canadian sources," Bernstein tells Next Wave. "I gave her what was then our best offer [for laboratory funding]," he says, "and it was about a third of what she was going to be getting for her favourite U.S. offer." Bernstein did manage to negotiate a better offer, and the researcher came home. Not every case turns out that well. "In general, the average size of a grant in the old MRC is about half the size of a U.S. NIH grant," explains Bernstein.

The CIHR's goal is modest. "I think we need to be closer to 75% [of the U.S. offers] in order to compete internationally," says Bernstein. To reach that goal, the federal government has promised to double the 1999-2000 budget of just over C$300 Million within the next 3 years. This year, the CIHR has already received an increase of C$39 Million.

The CIHR will also expand the scope of research by creating approximately 12 'virtual' institutes linking scientists by common research themes. These cross-disciplinary institutes will foster collaborations between traditional medical researchers and people studying social implications of medicine. "For example, if we had an institute for Canadian First Nations, people working on health care delivery issues, culture-specific issues, and illness-specific issues could all work together to transcend everything from how to deliver health care to what genes are involved in diabetes in that population," explained Bernstein. The directors of each institute will have the ability (and the cash) to issue calls for proposals for specific interdisciplinary challenges in their respective fields.

"The mood in Canada right now is exhilarating," says Bernstein. "People are finally looking forward to what's ahead after 7 years of drought." Mark Poznansky is excited, too. Poznansky, president and scientific director of the John P. Robarts Research Institute in London, Canada, tells Next Wave that "the CIHR is the best and most progressive thing to come out of the federal government with respect to health research since the inception of the MRC some 30 years ago. And there's no one in Canada better qualified than Dr. Bernstein to lead us in the right direction."

EDITOR'S NOTE: The CIHR has also taken over the MRC's role as a supporter of the Next Wave Canada site.