If you ever have an awkward silence around a scientist, there are two things you can ask them about that will always get the conversation going: their research, and their thoughts on science funding.
The extent to which scientists are funded has a great impact on graduate and undergraduate student opportunities to pursue research, and lately fireworks have been flying about funding across all levels of the University of Toronto research community.
HOW MUCH DOES SCIENCE COST
Contrary to popular belief, scientists spend more time in front of a computer applying for grants than they do in lab coats looking through microscopes.
Just because a scientist has received the job security of tenure, does not mean that their lab will always have the money it needs. In fact, grants need to be renewed every few years, and most labs require multiple grants at any given time. Brenda Coles, who has been the laboratory manager and technician at U of T for more than 19 years, explained, “We typically spend around $20-30K per month on consumables [and] $15,000 per month on [care and purchasing of] [laboratory] animals.”
Those numbers only scratch the surface of a research lab’s expenses. “Our yearly budget is around $1 million,” Brenda explains.
Considering that there are approximately 1,600 labs in the science departments within the Faculty of Medicine, and that this only represents a portion of all science labs associated with the university, it is clear that Toronto is a very needy city when it comes to science dollars.
There are three main agencies that administer Canada’s federal funding for science research: the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).
As their names suggest, each of these agencies fund a slightly different kind of research.
Controversy arose when CIHR recently announced it would be cutting its funding to students in MD/PhD programs, which it had been supporting for 30 years. “My peers and I have reacted [to this] with worry and frustration,” said Patrick Steadman, an MD/PhD student at U of T. “What already is a long training process, with deferred earnings as well as high levels of stress will be further inhibited by lack of support from CIHR.”
Receiving scholarships for graduate research is crucial to allowing students to focus on their research while still being financially independent.
The MD/PhD funding isn’t the only cut being made; the CIHR Health Professional Student Research Award is another undergraduate award that will also cease to exist after next year.
While it is natural to feel frustrated with the funding agencies themselves, it is worthwhile considering what the federal government can do to change the country’s funding situation. On this note, scientists across Canada are currently signing a petition organized by the Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences to ask the newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and several Members of Parliament to increase annual federal funding to CIHR and NSERC.
WHO GET’S PAID
Dr. Vincent Tropepe, Principle Investigator for a regenerative biology lab and Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Cell and Systems Biology, comments that 10 years of a Conservative government has been “interesting and a bit frustrating” with regards science funding.
“The government came up with some really good support for different kinds of funding,” he said, of the significant funds directed to Genome Canada, Brain Canada, and the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF).
But he cautioned that before we accept this as evidence of large financial support of Canadian bioscience, we should consider that a lot of the funding is narrowly targeted at certain kinds of research projects: those with a medical application.
Tropepe says that these types of funding strategies often exclude the “independent investigator who is doing fundamental research on a topic or a problem that is of broad significance that might have application in translational medicine in 10, 15 — even 20 years down the road.”
Of course this seems a long time to wait for progress, but Tropepe argued that “you don’t have to go any further every fall except to read the newspaper or look up online who’s won the latest Nobel prize, and every time you do that every single year it will be for a basic fundamental discovery that then contributed to humanity in some way… and in many cases that would never have been predicted when those discoveries were made.”
Dr. Freda Miller, UofT professor and Canada Research Chair in Developmental Neurobiology, shares the same sentiment as Tropepe with regards to the importance of funding basic science research. “The pursuit of science has shown us time and again that the breakthroughs that lead to new treatments for devastating disorders frequently come from basic, curiosity-driven research asking how things work,” she said. Miller’s research is asking fundamental questions on how the brain is built from stem cells during development, which she describes yielded some findings that snowballed into “a pilot clinical trial using metformin to treat brain injury in children, something that we currently have no treatments for.”
NOT ENOUGH CHANGE
Tropepe argues that our best solution for this issue is to reframe the way we define the importance of scientific research. He says some people will define importance by the economic benefit of a product or by an obvious benefit to society. However, knowledge in and of itself benefits society.
We need to financially support the career scientists and trainees currently doing basic research to gain this knowledge, and a large part of that needs to come from increased support from the government to NSERC, CIHR and SSHRC funding.
Consider fundamental science, the science that Miller describes as “curiosity-driven research asking how things work,” as forming the base of all knowledge. From a strong foundation, life-changing advancements in medicine and technology, high-caliber international collaborations, and a community of innovative professionals and graduates can all be built sustainably. If our country does not invest in a strong base, however, our knowledge can only stack so high.
Investing in knowledge, something that has a strong history of producing slow but long-term returns, is the only way to maintain Canada’s community of scientists who keep us on the map for innovation and discovery.
Sadly we have quite a way to go to gain that strong science foundation. NIH, the major funding body for health research in the US, receives approximately $124 of federal funding per US citizen annually, while CIHR only receives about $34 per Canadian. That means American scientists are being given almost four times as much as their Canadian counterparts.
Reflecting on this, Patrick Steadman remarks, “… Canadian research is top notch. Imagine what we [scientists and students] could do if we were better funded.”