Who cares about the direction of science in Canada?

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Across Canada productive, high-calibre scientific research laboratories are quietly winding down. There is a major shift underway that is controversial in science circles and not discussed outside of science, yet will impact us all. What is happening and why aren’t we talking about it?

Significant changes in the allocation of public funds for research will have repercussions on science teaching in our universities and it will affect our future capacity for science.

Three agencies known collectively as the Tri-Council are responsible for distribution of the bulk of public funds for science. These are the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR). My experience is with NSERC and CIHR and both of these agencies are in the midst of transformation.


Follow the money

We pay our taxes and somehow some of that money eventually gets spent on variations of test tubes, chemicals and research assistants. Although the total federal allocation to science is too small, this post is not about that. It is about how we spend our allotment.

My core research program is NSERC-based. We study fundamental questions about how molecules can affect the behavior of cells – medical relevance is not immediately obvious. Occasionally, we serendipitously make discoveries that define projects where the potential impact on human health is more apparent. These discoveries form the foundation for CIHR-funded projects.

Carefully monitored university accounts hold the funds received from NSERC and CIHR operating grants. There are strict rules about spending this money. The largest categories are usually stipends of research staff and the supplies necessary to do the work.  In my lab, graduate students who receive training stipends in the range of $20,000/year are responsible for most of the experimental work. As a rule of thumb, materials & supplies for a lab like mine run at about $15,000/full-time researcher/year. It is important to note that none of these funds go to my salary or any personal benefit – except, of course, the benefit of access to the resources necessary to pursue my profession.

Applications for research grants involve submitting a research proposal to a national competition. A panel of scientists with relevant expertise meets in Ottawa to discuss the relative merits of competing applications. When serving on a review panel for CIHR I spend roughly forty hours reviewing applications before a two and a half day meeting in Ottawa. CIHR pays reviewer travel expenses, but there is no compensation for time spent reviewing applications and attending the panel meeting. When serving on an NSERC panel last year I spent well over 100 hours reviewing a large stack of proposals in preparation for a meeting that spanned seven days – yes, we started at noon on Sunday and finished on Saturday. Scientists work very hard to make the best funding decisions possible and we volunteer our time, allowing more funds to flow into research labs.

Over the past ten years the overall success rate for operating grants at CIHR has dropped from 32% to 22% (see Figure 9 on this CIHR page). Those of us in the basic biomedical sciences (such as cell physiology, biochemistry, genetics) are experiencing funding rates much lower than this, in the range of 17%. Only 17 funded proposals from 100 submitted.

There are problems with the peer review process, but generally speaking it works for CIHR grants when the funding rate is above about 30% for each of two competitions per year. When funding rates drop to 20%, funding for all but the top researchers becomes something of a lottery. Applications that would normally be funded on the first submission must now try again two, three and, as the backlog grows, sometimes four times – few small labs can survive a drought of that duration.

A stressed review system motivated CIHR to recently request that researchers not revise and resubmit twice-rejected proposals.  Unfortunately, there is a growing pool of researchers whose rejected proposals have twice or thrice received ratings in the “excellent” range. Excellent research programs are being shut down. Why is this happening?

CIHR provides summaries of how it spends its allocation. These data show that over the past ten years there has been an increase in the size of operating grants – an increase that hardly keeps pace with the increasing costs of doing research. Some argue that this is the explanation for the drop in success rates, but the numbers don’t add up. It is clear to us on the front lines that new programs are proliferating, almost all of which are specialty programs targeted at translating knowledge into technology. Basic research is suffering.

The changes at NSERC have been even more dramatic, with success rates dropping by 20% over three years (the 2010 statistics are here). NSERC has traditionally followed a different funding model than CIHR. In the past it provided small grants to most investigators doing active research under the NSERC umbrella. NSERC has transitioned into an agency that awards vastly fewer grants a few of which are substantially larger than in earlier competitions. It is not clear that this change in funding models was a good idea.

The NSERC system is undergoing serious growing pains and the current structure of NSERC’s peer review system is insufficient to deal with the level of discrimination now required. Review panels are making mistakes because reviewers are burdened with too many grants to review. These mistakes have serious consequences and the NSERC review system needs an urgent overhaul. One place to start would be to hold more than one open competition per year.

Simultaneously with the switch to a new funding model, NSERC, like CIHR, is now more than ever in the business of supporting translational research and partnerships with industry.

The new programs at both NSERC and CIHR are good; they are worthy of funding. Basic researchers appreciate that these are new allocations won by the perceived value of the programs. Nevertheless, the reality remains that excellent basic research is going unfunded at unprecedented rates. Productive labs are closing.

Generally speaking, change is good. It keeps us vibrant. In science the funding pendulum swings between basic and applied research (‘knowledge translation’ and ‘innovation’ are the new terms). Most scientists recognize that diversity in the types of research being conducted is a positive thing and we are old friends with the continual struggle for a limited pool of funds. It is not unexpected that in tough economic times more applied work is easier to fund: it has shorter-term payouts and it is easier to explain. Is what is happening now part of this natural swing or have we reached a tipping point?

I think that we’ve reached a tipping point. Without corrective action we will continue to lose investigators doing unique and interesting basic research. This will likely happen with a greater frequency at smaller institutions that lack the resources to help researchers through thin times. Science education will suffer because those doing the teaching will no longer be active scientists. Students will have fewer opportunities to gain experience working in research labs. We will lose expertise and we will lose research capacity.


Why is basic research in crisis?

I cling to a lovely naïve idea that we are in this jam because we as scientists haven’t taken the time to invite the public into our world.  That our advocates in CIHR and NSERC are doing the best they can with what they have. That they perceive the only way to attract money to science is to promote targeted research programs and partnerships with industry. If this is the root of the problem then we as scientists can stimulate change by telling our stories about the delightful and important serendipitous discoveries of basic research. (You can read one such story here and more on The Crux in coming weeks.)

There are more cynical ways to view what is happening. We can wonder about the role of the U15 (a consortium of research-intensive Canadian universities) in setting Canadian science policy. Are programs like the Canada Research Excellence Chairs in the best interests of Canadian science or are they in the best interests of the U15 member universities? Does a Conservative majority in Ottawa mean that a pitch for an industry partnership is more likely to succeed than a pitch for basic research? These questions are a few of the many possibilities that scientists ponder.

What are the real driving forces and why are we getting so far off course? Self-interest of the financial and prestige varieties are surely part of the problem. But so is a lack of appreciation for how science actually works. We need a public that isn’t afraid of engaging in conversations about science.

To be clear, we absolutely need a robust investment in a variety of science. The targeted programs, the partnerships, these are all good. I pick on them in this post only because I am daily witnessing what I fear to be the death throes of basic research. One solution would be to provide more funding to all of science. Because there is no way in hell that I would try to make that argument in this economic environment, I hope it is clear that what I am calling for is a public discussion about how public funds for science are allocated.

Basic science provides the revolutionary discoveries that feed the stream to development. Investment in basic research is wise but only if viewed in the long-term. Cashing out early is a lose-lose scenario. Please, Canada, sit tight. Hold your investment in basic research.

Basic research is much more than a good investment. In its explorations of the deepest unknown corners of our world, it feeds the human spirit.

 — Lynne Quarmby