Opinion: Public Health needs a better political strategy

Chronic underfunding fetters life-saving public health efforts in Canada

Opinion: Public Health needs a better political strategy

Cuts to public health funding by the Ontario government announced in April have taken the media by storm, leading a tripartisan group of previous Ontario Health Ministers to urge the government to reverse its decision.

But is this political treatment of public health a new phenomenon, or is this appended to a long history of budgetary cuts and perceived underfunding of its practice and research?

Another event in a long-lasting pattern

Dr. Steven J. Hoffman — the Scientific Director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Institute of Population & Public Health — and his colleagues would agree with the latter. In a timely paper published in May, the authors argue that public health in Canada is underfunded.

They assert that the 5.5 per cent of total Canadian health spending allocated to public health practice fails to sufficiently fund the range of work that public health practitioners are expected to undertake — from food and drug safety, to occupational health, to health inspection, and more.

More importantly, Hoffman and his colleagues point out that the current rise in the frequency of chronic disease, mood disorders, and anxiety disorders in Canada has failed to garner a “significant” increase in budget allocation to the appropriate venues of public health.

They say that this results from the public health community lacking an appreciation for the process of policymaking, which causes them to fail to account for the reasons why public health isn’t a clear win from a political perspective.

As a solution, the authors propose developing knowledge of political tools and processes among public health officials.

Public health saves lives

Public health efforts are focused on long-term goals, such as preventing, rather than curing, illnesses, or on analyses of statistical trends within the field. Often, its work seems intangible to the public, and is not exploitable by politicians.

Attempts to pull down the 28.1 per cent Canadian adult obesity rate, for example, would require public health officials to target multiple industries. They may need to advocate for businesses to change food labelling, health care providers to provide more expansive training programs, or ask municipalities to adjust local regulations, according to the 2011 Obesity in Canada federal report.

Such efforts aim to change individual behaviour on a large scale through multiple forms of societal intervention. However, it is difficult for non-experts to trace their effects back to conscious public health efforts.

The more these efforts are hidden from voters, the less clout they gather on the political agenda of politicians, who are already wary of being unable to reap rewards from these efforts within the timeframe of the election cycle.

Solutions to the lack of political will for public health funding

To solve this problem, the authors ask for members of the public health community to better appreciate the policy-making process and the actors involved in it, so that public health agencies can adapt strategies to the kind of policy-making network relevant to specific healthcare issues.

They similarly argued for improved understanding of policy instruments — regulation, communication, taxing, and spending — so that the regulatory tools used for public health can be better used. Increased efforts to spread awareness of public health efforts may counter its lack of priority in the voter base.

In the wake of the opioid overdose crisis, mental health crisis, and spread of preventable chronic diseases forming the leading causes of death in the province, public health cannot be more vital in addressing our most urgent needs. Whether the output of a work is deemed tangible or not by some individuals should not make the verdict over the survival of that field of work.

Nonetheless, concerted effort to engage with the political system in the push for improved funding and policy can ultimately win over politicians and policymakers.

Mowat Centre to close following cancellation of funding by Ontario government

The Munk School-based public policy think-tank part of widespread budget cuts

Mowat Centre to close following cancellation of funding by Ontario government

The Mowat Centre, a non-partisan think tank located at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, will be closing by June 30, in an announcement by Director Andrew Parkin on April 29. The closure comes in light of the provincial government’s cancellation of the Centre’s funding agreement.

Established in 2009, the Mowat Centre reported on public policy topics related to Ontario and Canada. Previous research covered nonprofits, immigration, income and employment trends, the digital revolution in the health sector, and education. It ultimately aimed to “suggest new but practical ways of looking at long-standing public policy challenges, free from the constraints of short-term political pressures or policy choices of the past.”

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Christine Wood, Press Secretary for Economic Development Minister Todd Smith, wrote that “the government cancelled funding to all think tanks” as part of an effort to balance the 2019 Ontario Budget.  

While the budget does not explicitly mention the cut, it does cite research from the Mowat Centre in a section on regional economic development.

Two projects, the Mowat NFP and the Research Initiative on Education + Skills, are expected to be relocated within other agencies, according to Reuven Shlozberg, the Centre’s Knowledge & Outreach Coordinator. These projects focus respectively on research and analysis of issues within the nonprofit sector; and education, skills, and labour markets in Canada.

There are still no details on how and where the initiatives will be relocated.

The Centre’s most recent budget showed that much of its $2.8 million budget was covered by a $1 million grant from the Ontario government. Close to $1.9 million of the expenses went toward salaries and benefits for the Centre’s staff. Eleven staff stand to be directly affected by the closing of the Centre.

In his letter, Parkin wrote that the Centre’s closure is happening at a time when the “challenges of transforming government and strengthening the federation are perhaps more acute than ever.”

He hopes that “the work that the Mowat Centre has conducted since its inception will continue to be a useful resource for all of us working to address these issues.”

The gender gap in research funding

Women are less likely to receive federal research funding when assessed as principal investigators

The gender gap in research funding

A recent article in The Lancet suggests that women are less likely than their male counterparts to receive federal research funding when being assessed on their merit as scientists.

Current literature on the gender gap in funding across countries and academic domains supports this finding. However, previous research has been criticized for its observational nature and failure to demonstrate any causal relations between gender and favourable outcomes.

The value of the study in The Lancet is that, beyond controlling for common confounders such as age and research domain, it uniquely presents the merit of the principal investigator as a control variable through its structure as a natural experiment.

A natural experiment is a form of observational research, in which participants are not assigned their experimental conditions by the investigators, but are exposed to them through natural or external determinants. Although the study’s quasi-experimental design means that there was some intervention by researchers in participant selection and so was not strictly observational, according to the report, the filters imposed by grant program applications mitigated this selection bias.

“To our knowledge, this is the first quasi-experimental evidence that looks at this and looks at gender gaps in research funding, and I think that’s really one of the key things,” said Sharon E. Straus, principal investigator and Professor in the Department of Medicine at U of T, in a phone call with The Varsity.

In 2014, the Canadian Institute of Health Research phased out its traditional grant program in favour of one that reviewed the calibre of the principal researcher and one that did not. Straus and other interested researchers were provided with an opportunity to exploit this division and dissect the nuances of the observed gender gap in academia.

“For more than 50 years, we’ve had more women at the undergraduate level and academics, and we’ve had more women at the graduate level for more than 25 years… but that doesn’t translate into more opportunities for women in terms of leadership within academics,” said Straus.

“Women don’t get promoted at the same pace as their male counterparts, and they are less likely to get grant-funded and less likely to be involved in large collaborative projects moving to publication.”

According to the research institute, overall success across applicants was 15.8 per cent. Considering only the successful applicants who were evaluated on their merit as scientists, women were at a four per cent disadvantage in securing research funding.

Women were at a 0.9 per cent disadvantage to their male counterparts when assessed on the merits of their proposed research.

These numbers demonstrate that gender gaps are not the result of women proposing less compelling research or producing research that is assessed as lower quality. Rather, they suggest that the discrepancy between genders in the allocation of research funding stems from less favourable assessments of women as principal investigators.

It’s unclear whether the cause of these discrepancies resides implicitly on the part of the reviewers, or systematically in the established review criteria when assessing investigators.

Evaluating the biases present in the current system, Straus stressed that “the key thing is we want to make sure the best research is funded, and we’ve clearly identified that that isn’t always the case.”

The biases against female researchers in funding evaluations has implications on the opportunities available to women in academia.

“If women are less likely to get funding, then it is going to impact their careers… To get promoted in academics as a researcher comes down to grants and publications, and so that’s definitely on the causal pathway,” said Straus.

University creating advisory group to find “alternative sources of funding”

Admin motivated by decline in provincial public funding, low student funding

University creating advisory group to find “alternative sources of funding”

The university is looking for faculty, staff, students, alumni, and governors who have expertise in generating funding as provincial public funding declines on an annual basis. U of T Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr sent a memo calling for nominations for an advisory group to find alternative sources of funding.

“Ontario universities, as we said in the memo, are facing increased financial pressure,” said Regehr. The provincial grant, which comprises 27 per cent of U of T’s current operating budget, decreases by about 1.5 per cent per year. “On top of that, we have among the lowest student funding in the country and our tuitions are regulated, so in order to continue the great world-class research and teaching that we do, we need to think of new ways to support it,” said Regehr.

The initiative raises questions about how the university will go about finding alternative sources of funding, and what moral and legal obligations they will abide by. There is precedence for Canadian universities being swayed to make decisions based on third-party interest from donors. In 2010, Carleton University accepted a $15 million donation from Calgary businessman Clayton Riddell, which allowed the Riddell Foundation to appoint three of five people on a steering committee, ultimately influencing the curriculum in their school of political management. In 2012, an agreement between York University and the Centre for International Governance and Innovation, which would have funded study in international law, fell through due to faculty opposition.

The university is still looking for nominations for positions on the advisory board. They will be bringing in experts from different fields to discuss and analyze different types of feasible sources of funding. The assessors are looking for nominees with expertise on how funds are generated in a wide variety of sectors.

The advisory group supposedly has one year to fulfil its mandate, which includes coming up with a set of principles aligned with the university’s values, examining a wide set of options for alternative funding, and recommending a set of options for diversifying funding sources.

The advisory group will be discussed by Regehr, Senior Strategist Sally Garner, and U of T President Meric Gertler. They will form a representative group to decide which of the nominees will be on the advisory group.

“The committee hasn’t been struck yet, so I can’t say what they’re going to look at,” continued Regehr. “My colleague Sally [Garner] will be sitting on the committee as a senior assessor assisting the committee, and they’ll look at a broad range, but I wouldn’t want to say what it’s going to be. That’s why we’re bringing in experts so they can think outside the box, in ways that we haven’t yet.”

Nominations can be submitted by email to provost@utoronto.ca before Friday, December 8.

Provincial policy aims to increase number of STEM grads

University currently in talks with province over way forward

Provincial policy aims to increase number of STEM grads

The Ontario government has recently announced a new initiative to increase the number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates in the province over the next five years. The project is part of a push to make the province an industry leader in the STEM fields. U of T is currently in talks with the province to see how it will be affected.

The plan is to increase the number of post-secondary STEM graduates “by 25 per cent over the next five years – boosting the number of STEM graduates from 40,000 to 50,000 per year,” according to Tanya Blazina, who works in the Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development.

“This major commitment will significantly expand the talent pool of well-trained and highly educated workers in Ontario,” Blazina said. “These workers will empower Ontario-based businesses to grow into global players, while also attracting successful and innovative businesses to the province.”

Blazina says that as of Fall 2017, all publicly funded Ontario universities and colleges will have signed an agreement on program plans and funded enrolment levels. Universities will also have signed an agreement concerning funded graduate spaces.

This initiative comes amidst a major expansion project by American tech giant Amazon. The company announced earlier this year that it was planning on building a second headquarters in North America, which Toronto has expressed major interest in.

U of T Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr told The Varsity that the university is “looking for more information and to try and understand what exactly the money will go to.” Regehr says they expect that it will go to additional student spots, in particular a possible student spot in professional master’s programs.

“U of T is already incredibly strong. We are a world leader in many areas and STEM is one of the ones that we’re a world leader,” she said. “We expect that we’ll just continue to be a world leader and increase our research and educational initiatives in this area.”

In order to make the province more attractive to tech companies, the government is hoping specifically to increase graduates is in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). To achieve this, $30 million will be invested to increase the “number of professional applied masters’ graduates in artificial intelligence,” according to a press release.

“Ontario will also partner with the Vector Institute to accelerate growth in the number of professional applied masters’ graduates in artificial intelligence. The goal is to graduate 1,000 applied masters students in AI-related fields per year, within five years.”

Vector Institute is a Toronto-based AI research organization affiliated with U of T. It was founded earlier this year in order to be Canada’s AI hub and to attract top talent from around the world.

Dunlap Institute receives $23 million in funding

$10 million will go toward new Canadian radio astronomy data centre

Dunlap Institute receives $23 million in funding

A total of $23 million in new funding has been awarded to members of the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics at U of T. Of this, $10 million was awarded to Dunlap Director Bryan Gaensler to lead the development of a Canadian radio astronomy data centre, and $13 million was awarded to Dunlap Professor Suresh Sivanandam to implement a new infrared spectrograph for the Gemini Observatory known as the Gemini InfraRed Multi-Object Spectrograph.

The awards were announced on October 12 at the annual Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) Innovation Fund awards ceremony held this year at the University of Manitoba. Canadian Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan presented the awards.

The underlying goal of Gaensler’s project is to manage the enormous amounts of data generated by radio telescopes that are currently surveying the sky. In some cases, like the recently completed radio telescope, the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME), this can be as much as one terabyte of data every second.

“The data rates are enormous,” Gaensler said in an interview with The Varsity. “The data sizes are just completely unmanageable, so big that you couldn’t even save all the raw data to disk if you wanted to — you’d have to process some of it as you go.”

These vast, previously unimaginable amounts of data are only one aspect of what Gaensler terms “21st century astronomy.” Radio astronomers are also grappling with much larger fields of view than ever before: while telescopes used to point at small, specific regions of space, they now work to map the entire sky in radio wavelength. With this comes the need for near-instantaneous response times, as the chances of observing interesting, short-lived phenomena are much greater when you move from a small window to the entire sky.

While there are countless projects that can be done with an all-sky radio astronomy survey, Gaensler spoke in particular about three big scientific questions that he hopes to answer with the observations.

“Where does magnetism in the universe come from? What are all the different types of explosions and flares that happen in the universe? And what are the processes through which gas is converted into stars? So galaxy evolution, magnetism, and time-domain astronomy.”

The mandate of the CFI Innovation Fund is to support research that allows Canada to be competitive on a global stage. With the recent completion of CHIME and as the beginning of Gaensler’s radio astronomy data centre, it is clear that Canada is poised to become one of the key players in the radio astronomy landscape.

“We’re very much at the forefront,” said Gaensler, “and there’s some particular areas like pulsars and magnetism where we really own these topics.”

“[There are] all these great discoveries that Canadian radio astronomers have made in the past. We’re building on that heritage.”

2017 Discovery Grants program awards half a billion to Canadian scientists and engineers

U of T researchers receive $52 million in funding

2017 Discovery Grants program awards half a billion to Canadian scientists and engineers

On September 8, the Liberal government announced $515 million in federal funding for Canada’s science and engineering programs. More than $52 million went to University of Toronto researchers through the 2017 Discovery Grants program, run by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

“It is not directed research, and researchers do not need the permission of NSERC to pursue big ideas,” said Dr. B. Mario Pinto, the President of NSERC, in an interview with The Varsity. “So, it’s a highly valued program; it’s our flagship program.”

The grant’s freedom to explore is extremely important to researchers. Dr. Spencer Barrett, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at U of T, asserted that one of the things that makes the Discovery Grants so useful is that “they’re not funding a specific project; they’re funding a research program,” a trait he believes will allow researchers to conduct a broad range of projects.

The flexibility of Discovery Grants is compounded by application success rates for both established and early-career researcher applications. This year’s rates were 66 and 69 per cent, respectively — more than double the success rates for researchers applying for National Institute of Health grants in the US.

High funding success does not benefit primary investigators alone. Pinto said that “60 per cent of Discovery Grant money is used for the support of students,” and he stressed that undergraduate researchers are an important part of the NSERC’s funding structure.

Dr. Sarah Finkelstein, an Associate Professor of Earth Sciences at U of T, told The Varsity that her grant allowed her to hire new graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, which boosted her team’s capacity for scientific inquiry. She called her 2017 funding “transformative” for her paleoecology research on Canada’s wetlands.

While the Discovery Grants have been well received, the government’s science budget still leaves something to be desired. In April, Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, chaired by former U of T President David Naylor, called for major increases in federal funding if Canada is to remain competitive on the global research stage.

Pinto pointed to an extra $30 million in basic science funding that the NSERC received last year, but he noted that budgets are not increasing at the rate necessary to keep pace with the best of the international community.

Federal funding levels are critical for Canadian contributions to international research efforts. U of T physics professor Dr. Hirohisa Tanaka, who works on the T2K neutrino project in Japan, said that “Canada’s particle physics funding has been completely flat since 2007, and we are trying to do more with the same.”

Despite budget constraints, the NSERC is working to ensure science in Canada is accessible to all groups. While acknowledging that the council has more work ahead to improve the representation of minorities, including Indigenous peoples, Pinto said the Discovery Grants program is flexible for researchers on non-linear education paths. He specifically cited their policy of automatic extensions for female scientists who become pregnant during their grant.

“The Discovery Grant is an investment in the best ideas of people,” said Pinto. “We leave it up to the imagination and talent of individual researchers to come forward with their best ideas. They can be blue sky ideas.”

The professors interviewed for this article are all awardees of the 2017 Discovery Grants program.

Barrett uses plants as model systems in a staggering set of fields in evolutionary biology. He’s currently interested in evolutionary transitions, including the evolution of self-fertilization, the evolution of separate sexes out of hermaphroditism, and the evolutionary transition from animal pollination to wind pollination. His grant money funds an extensive network of projects here at U of T and out in the field.

Finkelstein works in the fields of paleoecology and paleoclimatology. Her interests concern examining the long-term historical changes in ecology and climate, with a focus on the carbon dynamics of wetlands. This research has taken her from Canada’s Arctic to the heart of South Africa. Her grant currently allows her and her team to study the Hudson Bay Lowlands of northern Ontario, one of the largest peat wetlands in the world.

Tanaka works on the T2K neutrino project in Central Japan. The project investigates the oscillation of subatomic particles known as neutrinos using an accelerator that creates a neutrino beam from the west coast of Japan to the east coast, where a specialized detector is located. Tanaka’s grant supports a contribution to the T2K project that includes institutions across the country from U of T to the University of British Columbia.

Op-ed: A wealth of opportunities

Student groups should take advantage of collaborative funding sources

Op-ed: A wealth of opportunities

When new executive teams take over at the end of each academic year, most find themselves peering into half-empty bank accounts and are forced to start scrambling for money in July and August to budget for events during the school year. Every September, when I return to my work-study position with the Hart House Good Ideas Fund, I find myself swimming in dozens of funding applications that were submitted over the summer.

The University of Toronto is as invested in student life as it is in academic success. Co-curricular initiatives are the bread and butter of every faculty. Students are encouraged to seek out safe spaces where they can plan and execute events, projects, panels, workshops, and conferences. Numerous organizations, including the Good Ideas Fund (GIF), the Student Initiative Fund (SIF), and the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), exist to help financially support student groups in their efforts to put on a great event.

More often than not, these student initiatives hinge entirely on the success of their applications for these funds. While these opportunities for financial aid are generously provided by the university, they are not meant to be the only source of revenue for student groups, especially since financial support needs to be distributed among many different applicants. Campus funds are the means to an end and should not replace the work that it requires to finance a group or event.

This means that the success of a student group’s initiative does not end with grant-writing. The funding process follows a chain of networking, connecting, and collaborating across the tri-campus community. By solely turning to GIF, SIF, and UTSU, student groups overlook fantastic funding collaborators around them — other student groups.

If only well-funded groups were able to afford to be creative, that would be a dire implication for diversity and inclusion.  

Groups are funding sources in and of themselves and partnering wisely has extraordinary benefits: being able to pool financial resources, share networking contacts, relay sponsors, and execute an event with multiplied attendance. Collaborating groups go beyond simply signing each other’s cheques. The most rewarding aspect of collaborating with both groups and funds is achieving the common goal of enhancing student life.

The best way to approach another campus group for a collaboration is with well-formulated ideas and realistic budgets, even if they are only preliminary. If making a convincing pitch proves to be challenging, consider looking at fund application forms; these questions are designed to be thought-provoking and to push students to think beyond the parameters of the conventional ‘elevator pitch.’

“Having to convey the purpose and objectives of your organization is a useful exercise,” notes an applicant from the Migration and Policy Coalition. “We learned how to draft a budget for events, to find new avenues for funding beyond our standard budget, and effectively express our objectives to funding groups,” says another applicant from the Association of Political Science Students. 

A successful GIF applicant from the student group Exercise is Medicine concludes that effective funding lends itself to “coordinating the help of others, renting the space, making a budget, and then using the collective sum of these plans to apply for funding.” 

Applying to U of T funds should be the last step in the financing process. If a gap still remains in a budget, financial resources on campus will gladly cover it. These organizations exist so that student groups with innovative ideas do not have to struggle to support a co-curricular experience and opportunities. If only well-funded groups were able to afford to be creative, that would be a dire implication for diversity and inclusion.  

For groups that need the extra help, GIF uniquely reviews applications on a monthly basis, while SIF, UTSU, and smaller college-based funds (like at Victoria or Woodsworth) convene each semester. Operating on a much smaller annual budget than its sister funds, GIF partners with student groups that demonstrate strong collaborative partnerships, financial need, and, most importantly, have uniquely innovative event proposals.

Mara Raposo is a fourth-year student at Victoria College studying women and gender studies. She has chaired and interned with Hart House’s Good Ideas Fund for two years, as its only non-voting member.