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Innovative science research in Canada is dying a silent death

Opinion: Federal science funding continues to be cut, shuttering labs and slowing innovation. And Canadians should be mad.
Kelly Marshall McNagny
Lab Experiment
Laboratory Experiment blood test

Kelly Marshall McNagny is a professor of medical genetics and the co-director of the Biomedical Research Centre at the University of British Columbia.

In March, Canada’s federal government announced its 2017 budget with no increase in funding for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the organization that provides the vast majority of biomedical research funding to labs in Canada. This was a devastating blow to the Canadian research laboratories that have suffered a decade-long decline in funding under the previous Conservative government.

As a result, labs have been shutting down, laying off their core personnel, negotiating the premature departure of its graduate students, and giving away their equipment. A recent pan-Canadian survey of research laboratories shows shocking statistics: 51 to 63 per cent of mid-career and senior investigators indicated they will decrease the number of trainees in their laboratories. The percentages of labs considering decamping from Canada or ending their research altogether hovered between 30 and 40 per cent.

How did we get here? How did this once thriving and enviable hotbed of Canadian leadership and innovation erode to a point where we are teetering on losing an entire generation of scientists?

It’s a question that affects Canadians, even if they may not feel that way. Let’s imagine, say, that a parent takes a child with extreme intestinal pain to the doctor. The child meets the medical dictionary’s description of feeling like he is trying to pass broken glass. The doctor’s diagnosis is Crohn’s disease, an increasingly common illness for which there are few effective treatments other than repeated painful surgeries. The parent experiences an all-too-common outrage: How, in this day and age, can there be no cure for this disease?

This is precisely what funding for basic research from the CIHR is designed to address. A huge reason we, today, live much longer and healthier lives than our parents and grandparents is due to a federal investment decades ago in discovering effective and innovative treatments and cures for a variety of diseases that plagued our ancestors. Canada has been a world leader in basic research in a variety of critical fields—genome research, cancer research, stem cell biology, neurobiology, immunology diabetes research, and more—that have led to the effective treatments we have today. Clearly, these discoveries have had a direct and positive impact on health care with new approaches to treating disease and improved quality of life. But they have also had an enormous impact on the Canadian economy by reducing lost productivity due to poor health and by fuelling a burgeoning pharmaceutical and biotech industry.

So how is it that funding for basic health research can slip precipitously? And why has there been no public outcry?

Unfortunately, a sad fact is that public perception rarely makes the direct link between new therapies and the painstaking basic scientific discovery work that took place decades before and fuelled their development. There are a variety of reasons for this gap in understanding: The time gap between discovery research and the translation of that discovery into a therapeutic or a commercial product can take decades, and public and political attention spans are short; the natural human inclination is to pay more attention to things that don’t work rather than things that do. Additionally, scientists frequently fail to communicate their discoveries effectively to the public. Viewed from these lenses, it is perhaps more understandable how government support for basic research in Canada could slowly and steadily decline to our current tipping point.

And that is what we are facing. A detailed forensic analysis of the dire state of Canadian research support can be gleaned from the recently released Naylor Report, the product of the Advisory Panel on Federal Support for Fundamental Science. Spurred by the late alarm bells raised by the Canadian scientific community, this panel was tasked with providing an evaluation of the general state of basic research in Canada in comparison to other research-intensive countries. This detailed document is nearly 300 pages in length, but its executive summary provides a very clear and disturbing synopsis: Funding for Canadian research, by virtually all criteria, has been on a decade-long decline compared to that of our closest competitors. Canada, which ranked seventh in the world for GDP-linked federally funded spending on basic research 15 years ago, has now slipped from the top 30 countries. More strikingly, there has been a disturbing trend to shift the short fall in funding to academic institutions, likely as a temporary stopgap, to keep from losing star researchers and their programs. This approach is clearly unsustainable in the long term.

Importantly, the decline in funding is not mirrored by an inferior quality of Canadian research. Quite the opposite: an interesting observation of the report was that citation of Canadian research publications, one of the best measures of the quality and significance of Canadian research discoveries, was 43 per cent higher than the global average. Thus, the cutting off the funding for research, despite the fact that the world research community recognizes the quality of Canada’s research, is all the more puzzling.

Partisan politics, too, have clearly led to an unprecedented focus on short-term wins that can be claimed within the span of an election cycle. Put simply, governments are loath to invest today in a discovery that will likely be realized a decade from now and might be claimed by a future administration. The current funding crisis for CIHR, after all, reflects a decade of neglect under the previous Conservative government. While this administration did occasionally make widely publicized investments in research, these were not open and competitive peer-reviewed agencies like the CIHR open-grant competitions and instead were highly targeted and one-off projects. The goal was likely to provide small but politically impactful investments designed more for publicity and visibility rather than effective support for the research community. Disturbingly, the current Liberal government seems to be following a similar trend. Despite the dire state of CIHR funding, the new Liberal government’s 2017 budget provided no new funding for CIHR. This was not due to a lack of awareness of the current situation: the aforementioned Naylor Report was completed in December of last year, but was only released to the public after the budget announcement.

This delay may reflect a desire to perform a detailed review and restructuring of CIHR before intervening. Under the previous Conservative administration, a number of cost-saving reforms were implemented in an attempt to stretch limiting funds further. Unfortunately, by all criteria, these have only made a bad situation worse and generated ire and outrage from biomedical researchers, the majority of whom were not involved in this process. Accordingly, the Trudeau government may be waiting for a more thoughtful restructuring before reinvesting in an agency that has been vociferously criticized by its constituents. A more cynical view, though, would be that the Liberals are waiting for the crisis to become a more public disgrace that necessitates intervention. As any good politician understands, more kudos are garnered for fixing a crisis than for avoiding one.

Regardless of the motivation, an unwanted consequence of this delay is that new funding will likely be too little and too late for a large number of research labs that have been on subsistence funding and have now reached a breaking point. The sad fact is that short-term gaps in funding set back research programs for years, forcing talent-diminishing layoffs due to revenue shortfalls. Many labs will not recover.

But there is hope—if citizens can regain the appetite for public advocacy.

The Naylor Report provides a clear and concrete list of recommendations, calling for the federal government to increase the budget for the four primary, federal research-funding agencies (CIHR, SSHRC, NSERC, and CFI) from $3.5 billion to $4.8 billion and to create an national oversight committee to ensure coordination between the agencies. To put that number in perspective, the rough cost of one of the 65 notoriously controversial F-35 fighter jets being purchased by Canada is roughly $140 million, plus roughly half that cost in operations and service. Cutting six of these jets would save enough to meet the Naylor recommendation; cutting one of these 65 jets would roughly be equivalent to the funding of CIHR research grants to 200 laboratories across Canada for five years. One research grant covers roughly two graduate students, one technician and all of the consumables and high tech equipment that enables discovery. Arguably, funding 200 labs could lead to a cure for a major disease, or at the very least lead to improved methods of treatment. Isn’t this worth more than a jet?

Biomedical researchers are dependent on government funding to support their dogged pursuit of cures for disease. Governments, however, will only make the long-term investment of these resources if it becomes a priority amongst a host of competing priorities with their constituents. This means all Canadians need to become advocates for the support of fundamental science, regardless of political stripe. But it also means they need to use their votes to hold their government officials accountable if their government fails to make science a priority. Calls, letters and emails to your local MP are extremely effective mechanisms for letting them know your priority and how you want your tax dollars spent. One need look no further than our neighbours to the south to see how this can lead to a change in course: Faced with a 20 per cent budget cut to the National Institute of Health’s budget under the Trump administration, advocacy groups engaged in a mass calling of their Congressional representatives, leading to not only a reversal but an actual increase in the research budget.

Here in Canada, though, time is running out. And scientists need your help.