Curiosity as competitiveness? Basic science research getting lost in translation

Douglas W. Zochodne is a professor in the and the Department of Medicine at the University of Alberta

 

 ...an excessive concern with useful problems, regardless of their relation to existing knowledge and technique, can so easily inhibit scientific development.    Thomas Kuhn,

       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 . 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 . 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 . 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 (), 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 , 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.