A lesson for policy-makers from the life of Tony Pawson

’View basic science as a long-term investment that will yield completely unexpected dividends’
The blue track at the centre represents a trapped antihydrogen. Its annihilation on the trap wall generates pions (golden trio of exiting tracks), which deposit energy on the silicon detectors. This signal is used to retrace the tracks to their point of origin, giving the time and position of the annihilation.

Look how fast Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne came running when the chairman of the Toronto Maple Leafs gave $35 million to cancer research!

Who can blame her? Wynne’s rivals, Andrea Horwath and Tim Hudak, would have beaten the same path at similar velocity if they’d had her job. Politicians cut ribbons, and there hasn’t been a prettier ribbon all year in Toronto.

Now let’s see why Larry Tanenbaum was feeling so generous.

Larry Tanenbaum likes hockey. He likes it so much he bought a quarter share of Toronto’s NHL team. He had already given Mount Sinai hospital $35 million in 2006, but he started to think he hadn’t done as much as he could after Jason Blake, a Leafs forward who’d recorded two assists in the 2007 All-Star Game, announced he had chronic myelogenous leukemia. Now, the good news about that nasty disease is that it’s highly treatable: put the patient on Gleevec and send him off to practice. Gleevec stops the nasty cells from seducing the good ones, a process exploited by a general class of drugs called “protein kinase inhibitors.” These molecules are so life-saving and profitable that the drug industry can’t stop salivating.

And guess where the work that made Gleevec possible was done. No, guess.

The drug that allowed Mr. Blake to fight the disease while continuing to play professional hockey, which is known commercially as Gleevec, was born of a breakthrough by Tony Pawson, a star researcher at the Lunenfeld Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital.

“When Jason was treated with that, he thanked me for my involvement in Lunenfeld,” Mr. Tanenbaum recalled.

Everything I’ve recounted above — the gift, the ceremony, the Ontario Premier 100-yard dash — happened in late June. Six weeks ago. Tony Pawson died this week, and it’s an awful thing. But it would be an especially awful thing if we did not realize that his legacy is rightly counted, not in fancy syllables and exotic prizes, but in thousands of lives saved and billions of dollars of high-tech industrial activity. Governments want to save lives and make work, and citizens elect governments that do both well. If I were a politician, I would note the wind sprint Kathleen Wynne ran at the end of Pawson’s work — and seek to begin more work that might have comparable results.

So what’s the secret with Pawson? What Special Cancer-Blocking Target Fund did the work? It’s not as though he was ever shy about telling anyone who asked. I met him in 2005 and we talked about science funding. He talked about science funding all the time. But his secret was so deeply prosaic a generation of policy-makers has been hesitant to learn from it.

Here’s what Pawson said when he became the first Canadian to win the Kyoto Prize for science. In the early 1970s in his native England he became interested in work a colleague was doing on the Rous sarcoma virus, which occurs in chickens and can turn a whole Petri dish full of healthy cells cancerous. How did that work? Pawson followed that riddle across 40 years, from London to San Francisco to Vancouver to Toronto, and when he won the second-biggest prize you can win for doing that sort of thing, he said this:

Remarkably, the basic science that has been pursued over several decades into the nature of cell communication, and the mis-wiring of signaling pathways in disease, is starting to yield new targeted therapies that are changing the way that we treat cancers for the better, and will be applicable to many human ailments. Although these are early days, I believe that this progress underscores the importance of giving free rein to human inventiveness. It would have been hard to predict that work on a curious chicken virus would have ultimately led to new ways of thinking about how human cells are organized, and to new drugs to treat one of mankind’s most persistent enemies. Governments increasingly want to see immediate returns on the research that they support, but it is worth viewing basic science as a long-term investment that will yield completely unexpected dividends for humanity in the future.

Giving a researcher money to follow his nose takes a level of self-restraint that does not come naturally to governments in these times. It’s more attractive to announce “funding for leukemia research” or “funding for the fight against Alzheimer’s” or “funding for carbon capture” or “funding for efficient new sources of clean energy.” Take that logic to its limit, and in 1973 a biologist who wants funding to study a funky chicken virus might never get started.

In February of this year, Pawson was at it again. David Johnston, the governor general, and Howard Alper, a leading chemist, had suggested Canada should seek to win more international science awards by increasing the number of Canadian researchers who get nominated. Pawson wrote a Globe op-ed, not available for free online, in which he congratulated Johnston for taking an interest in the matter and then said nominating good work won’t help if there is not enough good work going on. He added:

The ability of Canadian scientists to dream and make the kind of truly innovative discoveries that lead to awards is increasingly compromised by the declining levels of funding based primarily on excellence and vision, and the rise of support for so-called translational and targeted research, which is too frequently of questionable value. Canadian funding bodies are increasingly putting as much weight on non-scientific factors such as socioeconomic benefits as they are on scientific quality in deciding who to support.

 They are entirely at liberty to do so, but they must realize that this strategy compromises innovation of the sort that will change the world. The funding that allowed me as a young assistant professor to do meaningful science 25 years ago is less readily available today, and without it we will not win more prizes, regardless of the volume of nominations.

It’s really important to emphasize that Pawson was talking about changes at the margin. And he knew his own research did well from the current system. The Pawson Lab accounts for $24 million of $63 million Mount Sinai has received from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (which pays for labs and equipment) since 2003; Pawson’s name also appears on $5 million of CIHR grants (which pay the operating costs of specific research projects) awarded to Mount Sinai since 2008.

Don’t quote him as complaining about “declining levels of funding,” because he was well aware that the Harper government funds science research at higher levels than its Liberal predecessors. He was talking about declining funding for what’s sometimes called “curiosity-based research” because, in an extended fit of busy-body statism I would have thought was out of character for a government composed of skeptics of the state’s wisdom, money has been shunted at the margin from peer-reviewed grants toward “targeted” research.

But the Harper government does not even need to heed advice from a dead science star it didn’t ask. It could, instead, read the reports from experts it appointed to study Canada’s science performance. In 2007 Maxime Bernier, then Canada’s industry minister, created the Science, Technology and Innovation Council to compare Canada’s performance in science and industrial innovation (two different things!) against comparable countries around the world. This is the best advice the government can get: the council’s current membership includes the deputy ministers of Industry, Trade and Health; the presidents of Western, Alberta and McGill Universities; and a brochette of CEOs, principally from the energy sector.

The STIC’s third report is an alarm bell. A previous government in (I believe) its 2000 Throne Speech promised to get Canada from 15th in the world to 5th in gross expenditure on research and development. Canada has fallen from 16th in 2006 to 23rd in 2011 (of 41 comparable countries). Business research — which the government called “a national priority” in 2007 — has been “in almost continuous decline for the past decade.”

But Canada has always sucked at business R&D and had begun to lead the world in pure science — and those days are ending. “With their significant investments in research and higher education,” the government’s own expert panel writes, “other countries are catching up and overtaking Canada.”

And while the macro policy and funding climate stagnates, a series of smaller decisions, mostly fuelled by the prime minister’s increasingly open contempt for the notion of human-caused global warming, has created a burgeoning narrative that this government hates science in general. Check out “The Canadian War on Science” on a widely-read science blog. Or Jonathon Gatehouse’s article in this magazine, one of the most widely-read articles we have published all year. And this collapse of the government’s reputation for science leadership will get worse soon, when Chris Turner, a prominent magazine writer who ran as the Green candidate in Calgary Centre’s recent by-election, publishes The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada. When one of the most prominent U.S. science bloggers poured mockery on the Harper government in Slate magazine in May, I reached the obvious conclusion: the ratio of funding to results is turning into a lousy picture for this government.

Now, one way to react to all this noise is to say that Green candidates and snooty U.S. bloggers will of course look down their noses at a Conservative government. But meanwhile hundreds of young researchers from around the world are voting with their feet. A decade ago many were mimicking Tony Pawson, moving from notionally more glamorous precincts — London, San Francisco — to places like Vancouver and Toronto to do dynamite research. Too many have found that the fancy new labs here are misleading because there is not enough money to do science in them. Too many are told they may study approved topics but not the ones that sound eccentric. Too many think they hear snickering when they ask about chicken viruses. They can move, as Tony Pawson might have 30 years ago, to some other jurisdiction. If Pawson had done that, the smiling politician at the top of this article would have had less to smile about. And maybe Jason Blake would be dead today.