Curiosity as competitiveness? Basic science research getting lost in translation

ZOCHODNE cmaj3Douglas W. Zochodne is a professor in the Division of Neurology and the Department of Medicine at the University of Alberta excessive concern with useful problems, regardless of their relation to existing knowledge and technique, can so easily inhibit scientific development.    Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

       Fundamental bioscience has suffered a severe crisis of confidence in Canada. No longer accepted as the bedrock, or starting point, in the innovative journey, recruitment of new basic sciences faculty is down and funding has been dramatically attenuated in real dollars. In 2000, those who conceived of and planned CIHR proposed a working budget of $1B CAD within 5 years of inception. This level of funding was higher than Medical Research Council (MRC) allocation but below funding levels in the USA, and represented a very tiny fraction of Canadian health care spending. However, this funding support simply did not materialize; it remained at about 30% below the proposed level in absolute dollars, at best. Since then, rises in grant support have not kept pace with inflation. Budgets are flat and routinely cut by 25% by CIHR administration. The planned 2015-2106 budget is $1,009,984,000 with $703,091,433 designated as investigator-initiated health research. A Bank of Canada inflation calculator indicates that this is 30% below the original anticipated CIHR founding budget of 10 years ago (described above). Stated goals are that Canada “has an internationally competitive health research community” rated at 3rd among G7 nations by March 31, 2016, and that “CIHR-funded research has improved the health of Canadians” by 30%. These are lofty goals indeed for such flat funding!

While basic biomedical scientists marshalled a degree of activism and lobbying of government through the first decade of CIHR’s existence, their efforts have waned. Discouraged by CIHR’s leadership and an unsympathetic government committed to commercialization, many faculty focus merely on sustaining their appointments.

CIHR has recently changed its open operating grants into a new two-tier ‘Foundation’ scheme. It is a ‘cost neutral’ experiment dividing grants among those with a strong CIHR support track record and all others. Initial results, with vague criteria and uneven ‘virtual’ review panels, are of concern. Team grants are now popular but their rigour and reputation for high quality productivity are in question. Basic researchers struggle with their roles within such teams, whose governance and accountability can vary widely, ‘Knowledge translation’, community engagement and outcome enhancement are the prized attributes of a successful grant. A new and expensive flagship policy, Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF), is based on the identification of specific individual research programs that have ‘global impact’, a goal difficult to achieve without baseline open operating grant support! Many investigators wonder why this envelope might not have supported the base CIHR budget. Most University Departments regard individual CIHR support as the critical index of faculty success and advancement.

Curiosity is one of the most competitive drivers of research advancement. Having to identify the solution before starting the work, a requirement of translational mandates, crushes curiosity, innovation and research freedom. In Alberta, curiosity-driven work by Weiss and Reynolds, which was funded through rigorous MRC peer review, discovered stem cells capable of neurogenesis in the adult brain. It is unlikely any team translational grant will deliver transformative discoveries of the same calibre. Teams and translation have their role, but they supplement the primacy of discovery and cannot replace it.

Canadian fundamental biosciences can be resurrected. To regain international leadership, and to retain and resurrect our basic biomedical sciences community, an open operating grant competition budget of at least double the current rate is required. By my calculation, this would cost Canadians approximately $30/person/year. Uncharacteristic Canadian boldness is required.

2 thoughts on “Curiosity as competitiveness? Basic science research getting lost in translation

  1. An uncharacteristically bold blog! As we've seen, the party political platforms of all three major parties bear scant notice to science. The next four years do not look promising. Indeed, when funding is tight, there seems to be more pressure to translate what we know, under the specious argument that "we know enough". Hence, the outlook for discovery science is as grim as it's ever been. That's not to say translate along to patient impact is not important, - it is critical. But that pipeline soon runs dry without new discoveries to prime it. It's a little like preventative medicine. People do not appreciate value if they can't see it. A life saved through avoidance of disease via vaccination, is somehow less valued than one where a skilled intervention and painful recovery has saved the same life. So it is with basic science. It's value is realized only when it is missing.

  2. Ravi Menon

    Your comments are spot on. Beyond the Liberals, NDP and Green party responding to the letter from CAN President Doug Munoz (the Conservatives declined), I have not see much about innovation or research on the campaign trail.

    Canada unfortunately, does not seem to value science very much. This is not surprising. Canada is a resource-rich economy that is happy to rape, pillage and plunder its own resources and sell to low-wage economies and then buy back those resources as value-added products (cars, planes, bobble-heads). Countries that are innovation leaders are countries that have nothing else. Germany, France, the UK, the US, Japan all have already expended their resources and have turned to innovation to build their economies in the past 50-100 years. Canadians don't have to do this. They can dig, drill and cut their way to prosperity for another 100 years and buy back the value-added products of research and innovation from other countries. At much greater cost than if we had developed those goods in Canada.

    Iran, iraq and Afghanistan all have science ministers who report to their head of state. Even Syria has a Communications and Technology Minister separate from Industry. Canada has a Minister-of-State (basically a junior minister in training-wheels) who reports to the Minister of Industry. So Science subserves Industry in Canada. And there has been no outcry about this.

    Us scientists and researchers like to think the Canadian population cares. They don't. They won't till there is nothing more that Mother Nature gave Canada left to destroy. Once there are no jobs on the rigs, in the forests and in the mines, then people will be interested in Science.

    A wise government would start investing now. But this is not the Canadian way. Look at Blackberry. A leader that did not invest further and Apple blew them out of the water despite being years behind RIM when they started. Look at the Bombardier C100. They should have had the next-gen regional jet in design as soon as they started selling CRJs. But they sat on their butts and chose not to reinvest. Now Boeing and Airbus offer 100 seat aircraft. Good luck to Bombardier.

    Let us hope that we see a wiser government in the weeks to come. Health research in particular should be front and centre in Canada, given how much of our budgets we spend on it. The "1% of health care expenditures" for research mantra that CIHR was founded with is a distant memory. Lost in budget cuts and a population that has other priorities like wait lists.

    Now is the time to fight for it again.


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