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Evolving to meet the changing needs of Saskatchewan’s health research ecosystem: SHRF celebrates 20 years of research investments

by Greg Basky for SHRF

2024 marks the 20th anniversary of the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation (SHRF), a fitting time to reflect on where we started and how far we’ve come in our work to fund, support, and promote health research in this province.

The early years

SHRF started life as one-half of an agency created by the province in 1992 called the Health Services Utilization and Research Commission (HSURC). In 2001, HSURC’s operations were wound down to make room for two new standalone agencies: the Health Quality Council and the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation.

June Bold was SHRF’s first CEO. She quickly built up her team and developed an initial slate of funding programs designed to meet the needs of the province’s two universities and health research community. Part of our role in the early years was taking the lead in developing a 10-year health research strategy for Saskatchewan.

From the beginning, we knew our role as a research funder was much more than distributing research dollars. SHRF was a leader in key areas relevant to a thriving health research ecosystem that remains relevant to this day. We focused on measuring and communicating the impact of research, understanding and addressing the research-to-practice gap, and engaging partners and stakeholders to address areas especially relevant to Saskatchewan.

SHRF produced several early reports, including one, which at that time was a relatively new concept of knowledge translation: first, figuring out what exactly it was, then how we could get better at it. As a result of community-wide consultations, a framework was developed and published called “Health Research in Action: A Framework for Building Capacity to Share and Use Health Research.” SHRF also published a report on rural and remote health research, another first at that time, to encourage more research in this area.

An early focus was figuring out how best to measure the impact of the research we were funding and communicating it to different audiences. Now-CEO Patrick Odnokon was hired as Director of Impact and Evaluation to lead this work. In subsequent years, SHRF produced several reports on the impact of research, including one on the value of health research in Saskatchewan, another on research about seniors and older adults,  and a publication called Weechihitotan, which profiled the value of Indigenous research. “Back in those early days, we felt it was important to communicate the impact of the research we were funding,” says Odnokon, appointed CEO in 2016. They were our first attempt at sharing the stories and communicating the impact of that research to the broader communities.

As part of the National Alliance of Provincial Health Research Organizations, SHRF contributed to developing the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences’ Return on Investment Framework. Together, provincial and national granting organizations developed measures to assess how their investments were building research capacity, advancing knowledge, and informing decision-making.

Patrick Odnokon
Patrick Odnokon, CEO SHRF

“This was very important work – trying to measure the return on investment in research or the impact of research,” recalls Odnokon. “Governments, health system, industry, not-for-profits, taxpayers, donors, patients, researchers; the list of stakeholders that SHRF is accountable to is vast. With competing interests and limited resources, we needed a framework to help tell the story of why health research is such an important investment. It was quite an endeavour.” That groundbreaking work has stood the test of time; SHRF has used parts of that 2009 framework in many of its more recent evaluations.

In 2018, we were recognized by the ROI Institute for our innovative approach to measuring return on research investment, which was still a new and developing discipline at the time.

The evolution of SHRF programs

SHRF awarded its first research grants in 2004; our initial funding offerings – Establishment Grants and Postdoctoral Fellowships – were designed to meet the needs of the province’s two universities. Over time, we saw the need to broaden our investments to align with health system and knowledge-user needs. “Since we cater to many stakeholders, we need to be effective; we need to listen and respond to the needs of this vast health research ecosystem in Saskatchewan,” says Odnokon.

Partnerships have become instrumental in how SHRF drives research in the province. In the past, that was restricted to federal matching programs or occasionally striking a partnership on a single grant. Partnerships are now embedded strategically in everything we do. SHRF has become highly successful at leveraging our modest investment to bring – and keep – research dollars in Saskatchewan and make the most of our strengths and the strengths of our partners. We work with many different organizations, including many national organizations, provincial agencies, and not-for-profits.

In 2016, SHRF established a group called the Saskatchewan Funders Forum involving organizations connected to health research – including Lung Saskatchewan, Alzheimer Society of Saskatchewan, Heart and Stroke, the hospital foundations, and others. “We meet, we share, we collaborate,” says Odnokon. “SHRF is the perfect organization to host and lead the Forum. Our provincial partnerships are so important to what we do.”

In 2020, SHRF refreshed its program offerings to make the most of its investments and strategic partnerships. We added the Solutions Program to focus efforts and investments in advancing targeted areas each year. “These are strategic investments that we hope to turn into something bigger, where researchers and knowledge-users working on these issues will form new collaborations and move the dial on these issues.” SHRF decided virtual care should be the focus of its initial Solutions call for applications -- months before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. We followed that up with a call for teams working in the area of addictions, a problem made worse by the pandemic. The next call was for research focused on rural and remote health, which includes Saskatchewan’s Indigenous communities. In collaboration with the Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital Foundation, SHRF is currently investing in solutions for child and youth health and creating a community around child and youth health research to address some of the complex, pressing challenges in this area.

Quote Dr. Christine Chambers

The last 20 years have seen SHRF change its approach to supporting knowledge mobilization. In the early years, this was often limited to sponsoring various conferences. Today, we invest in early collaboration and co-creation between researchers and knowledge-users -- including patients -- and support creative ways to share research knowledge and valuable evidence to the target audiences and the general public, including cultural events, podcasts, books… and even comics.

In 2022, SHRF developed the Truth & Action Mobilize Grant, which supports addressing the Calls to Action set forth by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). At the core of the Grant is a sincere belief in the importance of addressing health inequities faced by Indigenous peoples, the need for culturally responsive health promotion and healthcare practices, and our collective responsibility to work to improve the health of Indigenous Peoples in Saskatchewan.   

Odnokon explains that his organization’s funding programs now map directly to SHRF’s mandate: “How do we build capacity? Well, we do this through our Establishment Grants. How do we align research with stakeholder needs and tackle today’s pressing health problems? That’s what our Solutions Program and Align Grants are aimed at. And how do we translate and act on the new knowledge being generated? Through our Mobilize Grants.”

Wrapped around everything are our partnerships. “We can’t do this alone,” says Odnokon. “Organizations outside the province that want to fund research here look to us for that provincial context. We play a vital role in ensuring that partnerships continue to be built and that dollars continue flowing into the province.”

SHRF, a leader among funding agencies

SHRF has shown leadership in several areas of research administration, particularly in its peer review process. Our expert approach to adjudicating applications, incorporating patients’ perspectives, and facilitating peer review meetings online – something we started doing in 2015 – long before COVID – and have carried on since – are recognized by other granting agencies looking to improve their processes.

Dr. Vivian Ramsden quote

SHRF’s research management system, designed and maintained by SHRF staff with the help of grant management software, Smart Simple, is also considered one of the best in the country. “Our researchers and peer reviewers find it streamlined and easy to use. Everything is done online: application submission, peer review, communications, annual and final reports,” says Odnokon, “everything is seamless.” In 2018, Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital Foundation sought SHRF’s expertise to deliver their research funding program on their behalf. “We have earned JPCHF’s trust to administer their program because of our infrastructure, processes, and the fact that we have some of the best people in the country running SHRF’s programs. This is another example of how we are that trusted resource in the province.”

Evolving in an ever-changing research environment

Change is a constant in the health research ecosystem. You risk becoming irrelevant if you’re not evolving and adapting to a dynamic environment. “You need to be working with provincial partners. You need to work with national partners. You need to navigate and work with the many stakeholders in our province to make the research we fund here have a greater impact and ultimately better known throughout Canada and the world.”

Odnokon figures that people outside the province are becoming more aware of the excellent health research happening in Saskatchewan, partially because of SHRF’s targeted support. Some of the work he and his team have done to partner with national funders and tell Saskatchewan’s story of health research is starting to pay off.

“We have been able to change as we’ve become more relevant and an important ally. We are not scared to try new things and push the boundaries,” says Odnokon. “The fact that we’ve not just changed, but we’ve led, is a testament to our board and staff, past and present. It’s not always easy to lead when you’re small.”

SHRF is committed to the health of Saskatchewan citizens and will continue to embrace innovation in research. SHRF is actively looking into ways to realize the value of the research, aiming to benefit the Saskatchewan people, health care system, and economy. “The value of the remarkable work that Saskatchewan researchers do needs to be profiled, shared, and translated into meaningful action,” says Odnokon, which reflects SHRF’s proactive approach, asserting that SHRF adapts to change and leads transformative initiatives. SHRF is a vital ally, making significant strides in Saskatchewan people’s health by investing in health research.

Partner Anniversary Greetings Video

Thank you to all who participated in our partner anniversary greetings

  • Brynn Boback-Lane, President and CEO, Jim Pattison Children's Hospital Foundation

  • Marli MacNeil, CEO, Research Nova Scotia

  • Rick Glazier, Scientific Director, CIHR Institute of Health Services and Policy Research

  • Lana Solberg, Healthcare Solutions and Partnerships, Boehringer Ingelheim

  • Akela Peoples, CEO, Mental Health Research Canada

  • Dr. Thomas Hadjistavropoulos, Research Chair in Aging and Health, University of Regina

  • Mel Barsky, Director, Business Development, Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation

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