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Starving research means less crucial innovation: scientists

"If there is one thing we have to keep doing, it is explaining and making the case for research – of all types: basic and applied," David Naylor, former University of Toronto president, told the packed room.

He was addressing 200 of the nation's scientists and researchers who had gathered last week at Metro Toronto Convention Centre to discuss the future of research in Canada. Dr. Naylor is the foremost expert on the topic these days as chair of the expert review panel that wrote the recent Naylor Report, or Canada's Fundamental Science Review, a government white paper that reviewed Canada's research apparatus and how to strengthen its flagging stature and output.

"We have a great tradition in this country of strength in science and research, but … our competitiveness has eroded," Dr. Naylor told the crowd. "We are not quite the superstar small nation that we sometimes believe ourselves to be."

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Read more: Canadian researchers rally around funding recommendations

His audience needed no convincing. Over the past 15 years, scholars, scientists and trainees pursuing independent research work in Canada have seen funding decline by about 35 per cent.

Across every discipline researchers have watched as their colleagues shut down research programs or entire labs, took early retirement or left their posts to seek better funding prospects abroad. Not only were they worried about the quality and survival of their own research programs and the staff and students they employed but they also knew that cuts to basic science research dramatically robbed the future of innovations in science, health and technology.

"This is the first report in 40 years that has looked at science funding in Canada, so we have to celebrate that as a victory," says Liisa Galea, a behavioural neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who attended the symposium on Wednesday.

Philip Hieter, a medical geneticist at the Michael Smith Laboratories at UBC, was also in attendance. "I'm hopeful that [the Naylor Report's] arguments will make their way to the decision makers in a quick time frame because this can't go on for much longer," says Dr. Hieter. "It's an urgent situation."

To get an idea of what these cuts have meant on the ground, just talk to Kelly McNagny, a medical geneticist at the University of British Columbia. Fifteen years ago, when Dr. McNagny walked through the Biomedical Research Centre on campus, the lunchroom was thronged with ad-hoc discussions about research, the building bustled with the work of senior investigators, technicians, graduate students and post-docs. All in all, about 100 people were housed there.

A stroll through his building today tells a different story. The number of people in the building has shrunk by half. Similarly, Dr. McNagny's own lab has dwindled from 12 members to five – whom he has had to deficit-spend to keep on board. The lunchroom discussions are anemic, and the buzz is gone. "You walk down the length of the lab and see an empty space where there used to be lots of people working," he says.

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The diminishment in research work is sad, demoralizing even, but the casualty that pains Dr. McNagny the most is invisible. It's the loss of discovery. Like the vast majority of university-based scientists, Dr. McNagny relies on federal grants to do his research. Specifically his funds come from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, or CIHR (the other main funding agencies are the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council).

If Dr. McNagny loses his CIHR grant to continue his research on stem cells and improving bone-marrow transplants or understanding how a newly discovered type of immune cell may be targeted to treat Crohn's disease, he and his lab staff lose out in the short term. But in the longer term, we will all lose out, he says.

"When you look at any breakthrough in health treatment, disease prevention or diagnostics, everything maps back to fundamental discovery. It's the pipeline for innovation," says UBC's Dr. Hieter. "So in the absence of fundamental discovery, none of that is going to happen. What's the value of extending or saving a life? It's immeasurable."

Ironically, Just as Dr. McNagny's funding for research is being stretched thin, one of his discoveries about the genetics of cancer progression – made 10 years ago with a grant from CIHR – has led to a way to block tumour growth that is currently being moved into preclinical testing.

Being familiar with the innovation pipeline wherein basic research enters and applications emerge a decade later, he can't help but wonder what future cures or innovations have been postponed or taken off the table from cuts to federal research grants in the past decade. In a survey of Canadian health researchers conducted by Dr. Galea last winter, mid-career to senior-career investigators reported funding losses of 40 per cent, so it is easy to imagine at least a third of future health discoveries in Canada have been aborted due to recent loss of research funds.

"When people get a vaccine or a treatment for their cancer they tend to shower kudos on the hospital and the people that provide the treatment. They forget that their treatment came from people in the lab studying their disease and coming up with a therapy 10 years earlier," Dr. McNagny says. The Ebola vaccine, stem cells, the prospect of slowing down multiple sclerosis using antibiotics – all these discoveries started with a CIHR federal grant at a lab bench in Canada.

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The issue, of course, is broader than just health research. "All of science is suffering," says Dr. Galea.

The Naylor Report outlines 35 recommendations for putting research in Canada back on track, and the research community in Canada voiced overwhelming support for the adoption of all 35. Chief among the recommendations is the restoration of funding for research to internationally competitive and historical levels with a federal investment of $1.3-billion over four years, thereby increasing the total budget for Canada's research from $3.5-billion to $4.8-billion.

"As David Naylor reiterated yesterday, it's 0.1 per cent of the federal spend. It's really spending on the future and it's relatively small in terms of mortgaging the future," says Jim Woodgett, director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, which organized last week's event.

Over the past 20 years, Canada has heavily invested in building its research capacity through infrastructure and recruitment, and researchers hope once the money flows again, things will bounce back quickly. "The knowledge economy has great potential to really be driving the future of Canadian prosperity," says Dr. Woodgett.

"The fact is, when we're compared to other Western developed countries in the world that carry out extensive health research, we're falling behind," says acting president of CIHR Roderick McInnes, who is quick to point out that countries with strong health research tend to have stronger public health-care. CIHR is on record saying that health research needs significant funding increases, he says. "All I can say is I'm optimistic, as are the leaders of other research funding agencies, that government will respond to this need," says Dr. McInnes.

Dr. Hieter acknowledges the zero-sum nature of federal budgets. Dollars spent on research mean dollars taken from somewhere else. But when you bankroll research you are also building the foundation for societal progress, he points out. "We've got a lot of problems: climate problems, health issues with an aging population, cancer," says Dr. Hieter. "There are so many issues we have and they are going to be solved by science. … So it's a good investment."

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