The Harper government: Good for science

Last year two Canadians, Tony Pawson and Charles Taylor, won Japan’s Kyoto Prize, which has nothing to do with climate-change treaties but has been, for more than 20 years, that country’s most prestigious award for great thinkers. Charles Taylor you may know: he’s the McGill University philosopher. Tony Pawson is a Distinguished Investigator — I’ve only now learned he’s no longer Director of Research, and I suspect he’s greatly pleased to be out of that job — at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. I’m told by people who know this stuff better than I do that his research on how cells communicate with one another may already have won him his Nobel — there is, as you can imagine, a long lag between discovery and recompense in this line of work.

Anyway, Pawson’s Kyoto Prize Lecture (.pdf) includes this eloquent plea for governments to leave scientists alone, as much as possible, to think in surprising ways and follow uncertain paths:

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.

You know where this is going. The Harper government ran Pawson out of town. Nickle-and-dimed him to death. Discovered that cell biology is part of the devil’s work because its mechanisms evolve, and performed an exorcism.

Not really.

Yesterday the Pawson Lab at Mount Sinai received an $11.5 million grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation to study “Quantitative Cell Biology and Proteomics.” That’s part of $19 million CFI granted to Mount Sinai yesterday; $135 million to the University of Toronto and associated hospitals; and $665 million in total CFI grants announced yesterday across Canada. I’m told that may be the largest single round of research infrastructure investments ever in Canada.

Of course politics is not alien to this: this competition round began in October, and the Harper government added $150 million to the competition amount in the January budget. Stimulus, you know. Applications are peer-reviewed, and with this much money sloshing around, it wasn’t super-hard to score: the 35% success rate was very high. (Success rate for CIHR health operating grants is currently around 18%; the success rate for the latest NIH round in the U.S. is about 1%. The research administrator who shared all this info with me suggests that neither 35% nor 1% is ideal. You’d like it to be kind of in between.)

So it’s not that there isn’t room for public scrutiny of the Harper government’s science policies. You’re free to wish Gary Goodyear was more up to speed on the whole evolution thing. It’s really important that the feds pony up the money the granting councils will need next year to pay for the research that will make all these labs worth the investment. But three and a half years after Harper became prime minister, this government just put $50 million into particle physics, $19 million to develop special-purpose embedded computer systems, and a hell of a lot more. It’s worth noting.

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