OTTAWA, Ontario - The official launch of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) represents a milestone in medical research in Canada.

The CIHR replaces the existing Medical Research Council (MRC) as the major federal agency responsible for funding health research in Canada, with an innovative, multidisciplinary approach organized through a framework of "virtual" institutes, each dedicated to a specific area of focus. These organizations are designed to support and link researchers located in universities, hospitals, and other research centers across Canada.

The CIHR also receives a doubling of the previous MRC's research budget. In 2000-2001, the CIHR's budget will be C$402 million (US$272.56 million), rising to C$533 million the following year. The funding represents approximately 25 percent of the total investment in health research across Canada.

According to Allan Rock, federal minister of health, this strong commitment will allow Canada to keep its best and brightest scientists and remain internationally competitive in today's knowledge-based economy.

Alan Bernstein has been named the inaugural president of CIHR. He is the former director of the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto and an internationally recognized researcher, teacher and scientific leader. He will be supported by a Governing Council of 19 members that will set the overall strategic direction, goals and policies. It will establish, maintain, and terminate Health Research Institutes and determine the mandate of each. The naming of an initial slate of institutes, and the appointment of a scientific director and advisory board for each, will be among the Governing Council's first challenges.

It is envisioned that there will be at least 10 to 15 institutes established that meet stringent criteria, including relevance and importance of health issues addressed and research excellence as measured against international benchmarks. Within these parameters, Rock estimated that each institute would support a research program in the range of C$20 million to C$80 million and include 200 to 500 researchers.

As they develop, CIHR institutes are expected to become a source of scientific leadership within their particular area of focus and establish priorities that will facilitate research efforts in this area. Led by scientific directors and guided by advisory boards made up of various health stakeholders, institutes will encourage researchers, voluntary health organizations, government bodies and other partners to work together to shape the Canadian research agenda and translate research findings into practice within Canada's health system.

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